The top United Nations envoy to Congo warned that renewed fighting in the east had heightened ethnic tensions and could lead to the renewal of a wider conflict in central Africa.
Alan Doss urged all militias in the country’s hilly eastern border area – the scene of the worst fighting and a humanitarian crisis in the Central African nation – to support a UN disengagement plan to bring peace to the conflict-wracked region.
He expressed dismay at reports this week that a key rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, who initially said he would discuss the plan was now reported to be backtracking and “walking out of any effort to move the peace process forward”.
Nkunda launched a low-level rebellion several years ago claiming Congo’s transition to democracy had excluded the country’s minority Tutsi ethnic group which is being targeted by ethnic Hutus from Congo as well as Rwanda.
The UN estimates there are about 20,000 militia fighters in the east, belonging to a number of different groups. Among them are members of an extremist ethnic Hutu militia accused of orchestrating the 1994 genocide of 500,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda.
The group and others are accused of razing villages, terrorising the local population and perpetrating rapes.
Mr Doss told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council he was deeply concerned about renewed fighting that began at the end of August in eastern Congo, especially in North Kivu, and has continued intermittently since then.
“We believe we need to go ahead as quickly as possible with the disengagement plan to reduce the risk of those hostilities spreading and spilling over,” he said.
“Ethnic tensions have risen in North Kivu and that is very dangerous – no doubt about it.”
“I think we are entering a potentially very dangerous phase. Tensions are rising and we do not want to see the Congo plunged back in to the conflict which spilled over and involved neighbours. That conflict lasted for many years with horrendous consequences.”
Back-to-back wars in Congo spilled into half a dozen neighbouring countries and destroyed much of Congo itself by 2002.
Mr Doss said the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, whose main role is protecting civilians caught in fighting, was trying to bring the situation under control through a proposed comprehensive disengagement plan. It includes a ceasefire, separation of forces, demobilisation, disarmament and the reintegration of militia fighters into civilian life or the national armed forces.
“The disengagement plan was presented to the government and it has accepted it,” Mr Doss said, “and it was presented to some of the armed groups. They have accepted it.”
The UN was looking for support for the plan from the security council, countries that contributed troops to the force, and all militias, he said.
It also wanted a “modest” increase in the force to help implement the disengagement plan and high-tech equipment, including drones, to gather better intelligence, he said.