Authorities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have accused neighbouring Rwanda of “invading” a volatile border area, portraying an advancing rebel insurgency as a Rwandan military operation.
Rebels in the eastern North Kivu province have made significant advances in the past few days after months of clashes that have killed several hundred fighters and forced more than 200,000 civilians from their homes.
The fighting and reports of support for the rebels by military officials in neighbouring Rwanda have stoked fears of a slide back into broader central African conflict in a region that has long been a tinderbox of ethnic violence, Reuters reports.
Here is a look at the players and dynamics in Congo’s east:
“TERMINATOR” AND THE REBELS:
– The mutineers are fighting under the banner of the so-called M23 movement, which refers to a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu but which the rebels say has since been broken.
– The group’s official leader is Colonel Sultani Makenga but the latest bout of violence was sparked by former rebels who, after being integrated into the Congolese army, took to the bush again when the government said it would arrest another commander, General Bosco Ntaganda, known as “The Terminator”.
– Ntaganda was a senior leader of several previous Congolese rebellions and is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes and use of child soldiers in an earlier conflict in Congo. Thomas Lubanga, his co-accused, in March became the first person to be found guilty by the ICC. He was sentenced on Tuesday to 14 years in jail.
– Ntaganda denies the charges and was instrumental in a Rwandan-backed plan to end the previous CNDP rebellion, in which he was a senior figure opposing the government in Kinshasa for several years after historic post-war elections in 2006.
– With the backing of Kigali, which experts say had supported the CNDP and other rebel groups in Congo, Ntaganda overthrew then-CNDP leader Laurent Nkunda and guided the insurgent group to the 2009 peace deal. He was then seen by both governments as a guarantor of a subsequent fragile peace that held until earlier this year.
* WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
– Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, has been pressured into calling for Ntaganda’s arrest as part of efforts to repair ties with the international community after his re-election late last year, a vote widely viewed as flawed by foreign observers. Congo’s Defence Ministry last weekend called for renewed operations to arrest the senior M23 figures.
– The rebels have withdrawn from Rutshuru, a strategic town in North Kivu, and Kiwanja as well as the village of Rubare a day after taking them from government forces without a fight. The quick rebel advance has also created new refugee problems with at least 15,000 heading for Uganda in the last week.
— The capture of Rutshuru, days after M23 fighters seized the mineral-transit town of Bunagana, raised fears again for Goma, the provincial capital that was nearly taken by rebels in 2008.
– Some reports have put the rebels as close as 50 km (30 miles) from Goma, prompting U.N. peacekeepers backing Congolese troops to reinforce the city to protect its 800,000 inhabitants.
* VIOLENCE AND HUNGER AMID MINERAL WEALTH:
– While there have been improvements in the army, Ntaganda highlights Congo’s struggle to break persisting power structures in the east where former rebels often profit from illegal mining and taxation, nearly a decade after Congo’s last war was officially declared over.
– Aside from the M23, there are a number of other local and foreign armed groups that continue to operate in Congo’s east, despite the presence of some 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
– Although the foreign armies that took part in Congo’s two wars have left the country, simmering conflicts still take lives. Violence, hunger, and disease have killed several million people since 1998, aid groups say.
– The conflict has disrupted Congolese and international efforts to open up a resource-rich mining sector that could bring wider prosperity to the central African nation, but has for years fuelled conflict instead.