Eastern DR Congo “a rapidly escalating crisis” – MONUSCO Head

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The senior United Nations (UN) representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) warned the Security Council (SC) the “rapidly escalating crisis” in the east of the country where a three-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission is deployed on peacekeeping duty could provoke wider conflict.

Bintou Keita, MONUSCO Head and Special Representative of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the strife-torn central African country, said “rapid expansion” of M23, including an advance into South Kivu as well as attacks in North Kivu, needed to be curtailed. This would contribute to preventing a domestic security vacuum as well as avoiding a regional spill-over of fighting between DRC government forces and armed groups.

As part of its three-phase withdrawal from the DRC, MONUSCO has trained 500 recruits for the DRC defence force (FARDC – Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) to defend North Kivu capital Goma and Sake, 25 km away where South African troops have suffered fatalities and injuries in M23 mortar attacks.

According to Keita, the SADC regional force, authorised by the African Union (AU), is “expected to reach full operational capability by mid-July”.

On fighting spreading from eastern DRC, the Sierra Leone SC representative said any regional spill-over into the Great Lakes region would have “devastating consequences”. Japan’s SC delegate asked for support to M23 and other armed groups to be stopped immediately as continuing support was bringing the region to “the verge of all-out conflict”.

United States (US) Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN told the SC it is “irresponsible for Rwanda as a major troop-contributing country (TCC) to UN peacekeeping to tolerate M23 behaviour”.

Remarks by the DRC representative to the SC appears to indicate what he said was “Rwanda’s continued aggression” in North Kivu will see the next phase of MONUSCO withdrawal addressed when conditions permit.

A recent UN report revealed that between 3-4 000 Rwandan soldiers were fighting alongside the M23 rebels in the eastern DR Congo, with Kigali exercising significant control over the rebel group’s operations. The DRC has accused Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group, something Kigali is yet to confirm.

Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) military interventions and operations in the Nyiragongo, Rutshuru and Masisi territories in North Kivu “were critical to the impressive territorial expansion achieved between January and March 2024,” by the M23, according to the UN report, which was backed up by photographs, unmanned aerial vehicle footage, video, and testimony.

The UN has also accused Uganda of harbouring M23 rebels, something the country has denied. The UN Group of Experts report said that Uganda is providing sanctuary to the rebels and passage to the Rwanda Defence Forces troops, who travel to Eastern DRC to fight alongside M23 fighters against the DRC government.

The M23 said their teams deployed outside their operation zones in Kampala and other cities in East Africa and Southern Africa were only intended for peace talks.

The rebel group and DRC government are in the midst of a 14-day truce, from 5-19 July. The DRC government said it will engage in diplomatic efforts during and after its humanitarian truce with the M23.

Fighting between January and April this year has displaced 900 000 additional people in the DRC, bringing to over 7 million the number displaced internally, mostly in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri.

Meanwhile, East African Community ministers in a recent meeting have pushed for diplomatic solutions to the DRC conflict, and Rwanda and the DRC have agreed to meet “at the earliest in the framework of the Luanda process.” The minsters of Rwanda and Burundi will meet by 31 October to discuss outstanding issues affecting their bilateral relations, according to an East African Community communique dated 8 July.