At least 40 Rwandan Hutu rebels were killed in air raids on their camps in eastern Congo late last week, in the biggest attack so far of a three-week-old joint Congolese-Rwandan offensive.
Reuters reports Congo’s government allowed thousands of Rwandan troops into its North Kivu province last month to take part in a joint operation aimed at disarming Rwandan Hutu militia groups that are a root cause of years of strife in central Africa.
“An air raid was launched on a (rebel) position in Kashebere where a meeting of commanders was being held,” the Congolese army said in a statement received by Reuters on Friday.
“The toll of this attack is more than 40 dead and many wounded,” it said.
Congolese and Rwandan ground forces also attacked a heavily defended Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) division headquarters in the village of Majembe, inflicting “heavy” losses, the army said.
However, survivors cast the bodies of dead rebel fighters into a nearby river, so no accurate death toll was available from that raid, it said.
A spokesman for the United Nation’s peacekeeping mission in Congo said it was unable to confirm details of the attacks.
The decision by President Joseph Kabila to allow around 4000 Rwandan troops onto Congolese soil has been heavily criticised by both opposition politicians and some of Kabila’s political allies.
Rwanda has twice invaded its much larger Great Lakes neighbour under the pretext of pursuing the FDLR, who are composed in part of former Rwandan soldiers and Interahamwe militia responsible for carrying out Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
A 1998 Rwandan incursion helped spark a six-year war that drew in a half dozen African neighbours and resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe that aid workers say has killed about 5.4 million people.
Before Thursday’s attacks, Congolese and Rwandan military officials said they had killed just a few dozen FDLR fighters. But the UN says hundreds of rebels and their families have surrendered and requested repatriation to Rwanda.
The bulk of the rebel force, estimated to number around 6000, has melted into the bush. And human rights campaigners fear that retreating FDLR fighters could carry out reprisal killings against Congolese civilians.
Fleeing Ugandan rebels targeted by a similar joint offensive involving Congolese and Ugandan troops have slaughtered around 900 villagers in Congo’s isolated northeast in recent months.
And reports have begun to emerge of FDLR massacres in North Kivu against civilians they accuse of betraying them.
“About 40 (Congolese and Rwandan) soldiers entered town and captured some FDLR. Others fled,” Mutower Bashamwami, 38, told Reuters at a camp for displaced civilians in the town of Minova on the shores of eastern Congo’s Lake Kivu.
“After the soldiers left, the FDLR came back and started shooting people because they were angry. I have five children. Two were hit by bullets and killed as we ran way. Another one is lost and two are here in the camp with me,” he said.