RUTSHURU, Jan 25 – Congolese and Rwandan troops have killed nine Hutu rebels, the two armies said Saturday, puncturing raised hopes for peace in eastern Congo following Tutsi ex-general Laurent Nkunda’s arrest.,
The first fighting since the two countries launched controversial joint operations against Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo broke out Friday, shortly after Nkunda was seized in Rwanda, and continued the next day, the armies said in a statement.
Rwanda has sent at least 5,000 soldiers into neighbouring DR Congo as part of the operation launched Tuesday to track down the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels.
"Nine FDLR were killed and one (DR Congo soldier) was injured in operations that began Friday and continue today in Mitimingi," the statement said.
The clashes follow Rwandan forces’ arrest late Thursday of Nkunda, the Tutsi leader of a separate rebel group whose soldiers routed government forces and captured parts of eastern DR Congo last year.
His arrest marked a striking turnaround, with Rwanda having previously been accused of supporting Nkunda in his campaign against the Kinshasa government, raising fears of a regional conflict.
Rwanda has in turn accused DR Congo of sheltering the FDLR. That group includes some of the main perpetrators of the 1994 Hutu genocide in Rwanda which saw the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Nkunda’s capture and the joint operations against the FDLR signal shifting alliances in the conflict-torn east and tighter cooperation between former rivals Rwanda and DR Congo.
The ex-general remained in Rwanda on Saturday, a DR Congo government spokesman said, with Kinshasa seeking his extradition.
"The war is over, that is the message of President (Joseph) Kabila," Congolese Agriculture Minister Norbert Basengezi Katitima said as he and other officials made a symbolic visit Saturday to eastern Rutshuru, held until recently by Nkunda’s men.
"Peace is here," added Defence Minister Charles Mwando Nsimba, who told the gathered crowd — including an impassive looking brother of Nkunda’s, a major in his rebel army — that Rwandan troops "are not in Nord-Kivu to occupy us, but to help us restore peace."
The Rwandan army twice occupied eastern Congo in the 1990s in its battle against the FDLR, and its return has sparked alarm among local inhabitants, aid agencies and the UN peacekeeping force MONUC.
"According to our estimates, there are a minimum of 5,000 Rwandan soldiers in the country today (Saturday)," said Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich of the UN mission in Congo (MONUC).
Rwandan President Paul Kagame praised the operation late Friday, saying he had "never been more hopeful."
The FDLR have thrived in eastern Congo, where armed groups have effectively been proxies of Rwanda and DR Congo.
A number of them have holed up in Marangara, a small eastern village. One of their leaders told a reporter: "The Tutsis of Kagame can attack at any moment. We are deployed in combat position throughout the forest."
Rwandan soldiers were stationed less than 10 kilometres (6.3 miles) away in the strategic location of Tongo.
Nkunda, captured after fleeing to Rwanda to escape the joint operations, could face the death penalty if convicted in DR Congo. However, no executions have been carried out since Kabila came to power in 2001.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said Saturday that Nkunda remained in Gisenyi, across the border in Rwanda.
Save The Children, meanwhile, said in a statement that Nkunda’s arrest could see 1,500 child soldiers released.
While Nkunda had success against government forces last year, his position was fatally weakened after he lost the support of top commanders who switched allegiance to the government earlier this month.
Territory once held by Nkunda has returned to government control, including Rutshuru, once considered the rebels’ "capital."
The agriculture minister boasted Saturday that "for the first time since 2003, a government convoy has arrived here without a UN escort."