The UN confirmed today that Rwandan troops have crossed the border into Congo in pursuit of rebel forces and was investigating reports that villages had been set ablaze.
Observers encountered about 100 Rwandan troops in eastern Congo, a UN official said, marking the first confirmed sighting since Rwanda threatened to send in its forces against Hutu rebels sheltering there.
The Rwandan forces, seen near the border area of Rutshuru, withdrew toward their own country after yesterday’s encounter, said M’hand Ladjouzi, head of the UN mission at Goma.
Rwanda President Paul Kagame said yesterday he would act against 8,000 to 10,000 Rwanda Hutu rebels sheltering in east Congo, saying that a five-month-old UN led disarmament programme had failed to neutralise the Rwandan Hutu rebel forces.
UN officials have said previously that extensive sweeps by their more than 11,000-strong force in Congo had failed to turn up any signs of Rwandan incursions since Rwanda’s threat arose.
Ladjouzi said UN forces were investigating reports of three villages being burned between the towns of Rutshuru and Lubero.
As tensions rise, large numbers of Rwandan Hutu rebels have begun moving west out of the Rutshuru region, sending civilians in the area fleeing, he said. Those refugee flights were not caused by Rwandan forces, he said.
“If Rwandan forces target the civilian population, MONUC will take action,” he said, using the UN acronym for its mission in Congo.
Rwanda has twice invaded eastern Congo, in 1996 and 1998, to hunt down Rwandan Hutu combatants responsible for the 1994 genocide of more than a half-million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The 1998 invasion sparked a five year war that drew in the armies of four other African nations and split Western Europe-sized Congo. An estimated 3.2 million people died, most through famine and disease.
Peace accords by 2002 saw the withdrawal of foreign armies and establishment of a power-sharing government.
Small scale incursions of Rwandan forces have been alleged before, but not confirmed.
“These kinds of infiltration are not new,” Ladjouzi said. A joint patrol with Congolese troops last week arrested nine Rwandan troops who remain in Congolese custody, he added.