More than 1,500 Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Congo, joining Congolese forces in an effort to oust the Hutu rebels who participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, officials said today.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the Rwandan forces arrived yesterday morning for a joint military operation that will last up to 15 days.
“We have officially asked the Rwandan army to participate in the disarmament operations of the (Hutu militia), which have begun,” Mr Mende said.
In a rare move, the two nations are stepping up efforts against the Rwandan Hutu militants who have long destabilised the region. Still, neither country has been able to eradicate the Hutu rebels since they fled to Congo in 1994.
The Hutu fighters, who helped carry out the genocide in which more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, have remained in Congo untouched, heavily armed and in control of lucrative mines in remote hills and forests.
The Hutu militia has terrorised civilians, given Tutsi rebels a reason to fight and also caused Rwanda to invade Congo previously in 1996 and 1998.
The United Nations mission in Congo said it was not associated with the operations but confirmed it. UN peacekeeping spokesman Lt Col Jean-Paul Dietrich said between 1,500 and 2,000 Rwandan soldiers had crossed the border.
Louise Mushikiwabo, the Rwandan minister of information, said all forces were under the command of the Congolese national army.
“There is new momentum and the government of Rwanda is pleased the fundamental obstacle to stability for the last 15 years ... is finally being tackled,” Ms Mushikiwabo said.
The Rwandan Hutus fled to Congo in 1994, some to overflowing refugee camps. By 1996, their leaders launched an uprising and began carrying out cross-border attacks into Rwanda, killing more Tutsis.
Rwanda attacked the camps and drove on to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, installing late Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila as president in 1997.
Eager to prove his independence, Mr Kabila expelled the Rwandan Tutsis who brought him to power in 1998. Three days later, Rwanda organised another Congolese rebellion, and along with Uganda, seized eastern Congo in a war that drew in half a dozen African nations and lasted until 2002.
Since then, Congo has formed a unity government that gave top posts to rebels. Kabila’s son Joseph won historic elections in 2006.
Former Rwandan-allied Tutsi rebels such as Laurent Nkunda were integrated into the army, but expressed frustration over the government’s hesitancy to go after the Hutu militias. The former general Nkunda quit the army in 2004 and launched a rebellion.
Nkunda has used the threat posed by the Hutu rebels to justify carving out his own fiefdom in the mineral-rich east. But his critics say he is more interested in power and Congo’s mineral wealth.
Rebels led by Nkunda launched an offensive in late August, gaining control of a swath of eastern Congo and driving more than a quarter of a million people from their homes. Many Congolese soldiers fled the advancing rebels, and UN peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians from being killed or raped in the chaos.