War weary Congo was plunged into conflict again tonight and a Cabinet minister in the east of the African nation said “We are being attacked by Rwandan troops.”
UN officials said they were investigating claims that Rwandan forces had clashed with militias.
We are on a war footing,” Congo Cabinet minister Mbusa Nyamwisi said in the eastern city of Beni, adding that there was fighting nearby.
Villagers reaching Beni said communities north of Goma, near Congo’s border with Rwanda, had been attacked, with at least three villages burned, Nyamwisi said.
The displaced reported 15 people killed at one village, Ikobo, he said.
Nyamwisi claimed two brigades of Rwandan troops were fighting alongside Congolese rebel allies from Congo’s 1998-2002 war. He gave no evidence.
Neither the United Nations nor any other independent observer has verified the alleged Rwandan incursions or fighting.
Lawless east Congo is home to numerous, vying militias, with frequent clashes in the remote bush.
Residents frequently blame Rwandan troops for clashes involving Rwanda-allied rebels and other forces.
Local officials, Congolese commanders, priests and other community leaders reported clashes in the area today
The growing claims, and rising tension, came as Rwandan President Paul Kagame told MPs in the capital Kigali that his forces “might” already be in east Congo, in pursuit of Rwandan Hutu rebels sheltering there.
Rwandan troops had been seen crossing the border into Congo since Friday.
There have been reports for months of small units of Rwandan special forces regularly crossing into Congo to harass and spy on the 8,000-10,000 Hutu rebels believed to be in eastern of the country.
But a Western diplomat on Monday said thousands of Rwandan troops have crossed this time.
Whether Rwanda has sent a large invasion force, a small special forces team or is just trying to prod the UN into taking tougher action to disarm the rebels is unclear. Kagame and his aides so far have refused to give definitive answers.
Rwanda has invaded Congo twice since 1996 on the grounds of flushing out the Hutu extremists responsible for the 1994 genocide of a half-million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.
Rwanda’s second Congo invasion, in 1998, touched off a five year war that drew in the armies of four other nations and split resource-rich Congo. An estimated 3.2 million people died, most through famine and disease.
Congolese are quick to point out that despite those two invasions, Rwandan forces never succeeded in disarming the rebels and insist that Rwanda is only after Congo’s mineral wealth.
Kagame dismissed the allegations.
“We don’t want any of Congo’s minerals because we are not thieves, what we want is fighting those negative forces,” he said.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila said in his capital Kinshasa that he would send reinforcements toward the border with Rwanda to “assure the security of the civilian population and to contain the Rwandan aggression.”
Rwandan special envoy Richard Sezibera said he hoped the troop movement would help defeat the Rwandan rebels in Congo.
“Let’s wait and see what comes out of the deployment, we have time and again asked them to disarm these negative forces,” Sezibera said.
The Rwandans are not alone in feeling that the United Nations’ voluntary disarmament programme is not working and that force may be needed against the rebels.
The United Nations has 11,000 troops in Congo, overseeing peace and power-sharing deals that mandated the withdrawal of foreign armies.
The force is building to 16,000 as the UN steps up disarmament efforts of Rwandan Hutu rebels and other militias in the east.