Fighting in eastern DR Congo “worrisome” – Keita

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Fighting between M23 and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) armed forces (FARDC – Forces Armees de la Republic Democratique du Congo) in the east of the country where a Southern African regional force is deploying, has “further compounded a dire humanitarian situation” the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) heard this week.

Speaking from Kinshasa, Bintou Keita, who heads the UN mission MONUSCO in the troubled central African country, urged “ambassadors to do all they can to prevent the fighting in North Kivu province from spreading beyond the border”.

The situation in eastern DRC is among the most complex, prolonged and protracted crises in the world, lasting some three decades, the United Nations (UN) said when reporting on Keita’s Security Council address. “The latest violence is occurring against a backdrop of the eventual drawdown of MONUSCO this year and at a time when historic flooding is affecting some two million people.”

Escalating hostilities since expiry of a December ceasefire, led to a “deeply worrisome situation” around the Sake and provincial capital, Goma Keita said.

Fighting intensified in several areas in recent weeks with M23 moving further south, sparking more displacement towards Goma and neighbouring South Kivu province.

She told the top UN decision making body conditions in already over-crowded displacement sites in and around Goma are desperate.

“More than 400 000 displaced persons have now sought refuge in the city [Goma], including 65 000 in the past two weeks, triggering a dramatic increase in cases of cholera due to a lack of safe drinking water, adequate hygiene, and sanitation.” Added to this, restricted access to M23-controlled territory is isolating Goma from inland territories, disrupting food production and supply.

The UNSC heard redeployment of Congolese troops to the front with M23 exacerbated the security vacuum in other North Kivu territories and drawn in new combatants, notably from South Kivu. Groups including the Allied Defence Forces (ADF) are “increasingly” committing human rights violations and abuses including summary executions, abductions, property appropriation, extortion and conflict-related sexual violence.

Keita expressed her deep concern over “serious violations” committed in areas controlled by M23, with human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society representatives targeted. At least 150 people have been killed since November, 77 in January alone.

Meanwhile, MONUSCO continues to confront mis and disinformation surrounding its role in the ongoing clashes, mainly through online campaigns carried out by accounts mostly located outside of the DRC.

“This has resulted in hostile acts against UN peacekeepers and restrictions of movement by local armed groups and government soldiers,” Keita said. Violent protests against the UN and the diplomatic community erupted in Kinshasa on 10 February, “fuelled by a perception of the international community’s inaction and inefficiency over the situation in the eastern DRC.”

UN entities and MONUSCO were targeted in 11 incidents and 32 staff members had to either be extracted or rescued by peacekeepers. Two UN vehicles were burnt and eight were severely damaged by stoning.

The UN envoy also voiced concern over the security situation in other areas of North Kivu, Ituri and South Kivu provinces.

She said there has been a significant escalation of violence in Djugu territory in Ituri, where MONUSCO continues to ensure the protection of more than 100 000 people displaced last week due to deadly fighting between the Zaïre and CODECO factions.

The ADF continues to kill and kidnap civilians in both Ituri and North Kivu. The group has also started to attack military targets after nearly a year of avoiding direct clashes with the security forces, and at time when a joint operation by the Ugandan and Congolese armies has been suspended.

Clashes have also broken out between Twirwaneho militia and Mai-Mai groups in South Kivu, where MONUSCO is preparing to withdraw within the coming months.

Keita concluded her remarks by expressing gratitude to countries that have provided uniformed personnel to the mission, whose service is far from over.

Troop contributing countries include South Africa, which has 1 200 troops deployed with MONUSCO (Operation Mistral), and has committed another 2 900 to the new Southern African Development Community Mission in the DRC (SAMIDRC). Tanzania and Malawi will make up the remainder of the 5 000-strong SAMIDRC force.

Following the death of two South African soldiers and the injury of three others with SAMIDRC last week, experts are warning more casualties will arise as the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) presence is underequipped, numerically weak and lacks air support.

“We will take casualties, that’s inevitable,” defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman told News24. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed that M23 will decide that this is too weak a force to really bother them and ignore them.”

“It’s irresponsible to deploy a force without the proper means for success and a reasonable level of risk,” said African Defence Review director Darren Olivier, who added that the lessons of the Central African Republic deployment – which ended up with over a dozen dead South African soldiers – have not been learnt.

“You do not deploy an infantry force, primarily consisting of light infantry, in a high-threat environment, against a well-equipped, well-trained, and numerically superior insurgent group,” he said.

Olivier believes the SANDF is in a much worse state than in 2013 when the Battle of Bangui was fought in the Central African Republic, with Heitman suggesting South Africa would have to double the current budget to play the regional leadership role it wants to. He recommended withdrawing the overstretched forces from the DRC, or giving them much better equipment to defend themselves and carry out operations.

The experts agreed that having a stable DRC would be beneficial to South Africa and the continent, especially in terms of trade and refugee flows, but the SANDF does not have the resources to do a proper job in bringing stability to the DRC. “We are walking noisily, but we are carrying a twig,” Heitman said.