Rwandan conflict intensifies with new deal

The Washington Post

NYAMILIMA, Congo — An unusual delegation of Congolese and Rwandan army officials, ex-rebel lieutenants, spear-carrying militiamen and shiny-shoed politicians had arrived at this dirt-road village on Sunday — a kind of road show aimed at explaining perhaps the most improbable twist yet in the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Stepping onto a stage, a politician told a gathering crowd of an extraordinary deal between Congo and Rwanda that has suddenly made friends of enemies and enemies of friends, bringing 7,000 Rwandan troops to Congo for a potentially ruthless joint military operation.

On paper, the Congolese-Rwandan operation aims to disarm an estimated 6,500 Rwandan Hutu militiamen who fled into eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide and have wreaked havoc ever since.

The operation is part of the wide-ranging military, political and economic deal between Congo and Rwanda, which represents a significant rapprochement between the two countries and offers the prospect of finally sorting out a conflict that by some estimates has killed 5 million people over the past decade.

As part of the deal, Rwanda agreed to pull the plug on its proxy, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. Congo, in turn, agreed to allow Rwandan troops in to fight the Hutu militias, whose leaders allegedly participated in the genocide.

In villages across these green hills, however, there are signs that the joint operation will be messy and brutal.

Human rights groups have warned that the operation could easily degenerate into a bloodbath for civilians around villages such as Nyamilima.

The almost zany task of cobbling together the joint operation itself entails mixing Rwandan soldiers with the Congolese soldiers who once fought them, with the rebels who were fighting the Congolese, with the ragtag militias that were fighting the rebels — and the entire operation is targeting a group the Congolese army has collaborated with for years.

All has not gone smoothly so far.

In the past week, a key Nkunda commander failed to show up for a ceremony at one camp to integrate hundreds of his men into the Congolese army. And on the Congolese army side, notoriously undisciplined troops and militias are not exactly happy about fighting their old friends.

Though the operation is nominally under Congolese command, officials familiar with it say the Rwandans — considered one of the best armies in Africa — are firmly in charge.

"We feel unhappy seeing them come to do the job that we can do," said one Congolese soldier, who did not give his name. "It will be impossible to live and work with them."

After a decade of war, some Congolese army commanders and officials seem impatient with worries about civilian casualties, saying it’s more important to finally rid Congo of the FDLR menace.

Alan Doss, the top U.N. ambassador to Congo, stressed the need for civilian protection during the operation but noted that diplomats pushed for the Hutu militias to be disarmed.

U.N. teams are stepping up efforts to coax fighters into laying down their weapons. The teams have set up "welcome centers" in the bush and dropped leaflets urging fighters to disarm and return to Rwanda.

La Forge Fils Bazeye, a spokesman for the Hutu militia, said that his group would fight "until the end," adding that by launching the operation, "the Congolese government has already sacrificed the population."

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Title: Rwandan conflict intensifies with new deal | Author: Stephanie McCrummen | Section: News | Published Date: 2009-01-28 | Internal ID: 5862