The fate of fighters affiliated with the re-emerging M23 rebel group hangs in the balance, days after more than two dozen combatants fled into Rwanda, escaping clashes with Democratic Republic of Congo government forces.
Thirty-two of the men were formally handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday by the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) as they wait for their fate to be decided. Three others were still undergoing treatment for injuries sustained during the clashes.
“We have handed them over to Red Cross as refugees and in line with international laws they will be moved to a place at least 50km from their country of origin,” said Lt Col James Cassius, the commander of the RDF third Battalion in Rubavu district.
“The combatants arrived here fleeing from fighting. Normally when people seek refuge, whether they are civilians or fighters, they are relocated 50km away from the nearest international border to deter any possible harm to their lives. Once they surrender peacefully and are not armed, under international law, they are protected and accorded basic needs as talks between the concerned countries take place,” the military official said.
According to the rebels, the fighting took place in an area known as Kanyanja, near the Rwanda-DR Congo border, overlooking Mt Kalisimbi and Mt Mikeno in an area covered by Virunga National Park. DR Congo government forces say they repulsed the rebels.
However, it remains unclear how two DR Congo government helicopters crashed, claiming the lives of four crew members, as the clashes between the rebels and government forces (FARDC) raged on.
Government officials deny that they were downed by the rebels. Gen Leon Mushalé, the FARDC commander in the area, said the helicopters were conducting routine patrols in the area when they encountered bad weather.
UN-sponsored Radio Okapi, quoting military sources, said the helicopters crashed as they pursued insurgents belonging to the rebel group. Radio Okapi also reported that five crew members — three Russians and two Congolese officers — were rescued and taken to hospital.
In January, Kinshasa raised the alarm that M23 rebels could be reorganising. Uganda later confirmed that about 40 members of the group had escaped from a camp, while more than 100 were arrested as they tried to cross into DR Congo.