The Congo continues to move closer to full-scale war even as Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) honors its self-proclaimed ceasefire in the region around Goma in North Kivu. While Nkunda solidifies his positions surrounding the city, his troops are fighting with units of the ethnic militia PARECO in a village about two kilometers outside Rutshuru in rebel-held territory.
PARECO, the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance, is a movement claiming to unite non-Rwandan peoples as well as some Hutu in North Kivu. Nkunda, a Tutsi warlord with ties to the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, says his army’s goal is to protect Tutsi inhabitants of the DRC from the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe who fled to the DRC after the genocide of 1994 and today operate in the region under the acronym FDLR.
Nkunda’s actions, however, point more toward establishment of a separate “Republic of Virunga,” an autonomous state in the mineral-rich area. As he has claimed more and more territory, he has increased his control over the civil administration, police, the intelligence service, the distribution of land, and the collection of taxes and tariffs. He’s also demanded a say in appointment of the provincial governor and other officials.
The Congolese army and the over-stretched UN forces have been unable to block Nkunda’s advance. Of the UN’s 17,000 troops in the country, about 5,000 are currently deployed in North Kivu, with 1,700 of them holding Goma, a city that has swelled to over 700,000 residents. Nkunda is believed to lead an army of 5,000.
The warlord isn’t acting alone, however. The UN also acknowledges for the first time that Rwandan government forces aided Nkunda’s troops during the recent rout of the DRC army. Rwandan forces fired tank shells and other heavy artillery across the border at Congolese troops during fighting last week and intelligence reports from UN observers say there are Rwandan soldiers integrated into the rebel forces. Rwanda has denied the charges, just as they did the last two times the country invaded the DRC.
During the Second Congo War, eight neighboring countries weighed in on one side or the other. In addition to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi fought against the Congolese national army while forces from Zimbabwe, Angola, Chad, Sudan, and Namibia provided support for the government. Some 25 armed militias weighed in as well. Today, Kabila’s government has appealed for help from Angola and Nkunda’s supporters have accused Zimbabwe of mobilizing troops in the Congo as well.
In the meantime, Nkunda continues to demand negotiations with the DRC government to legitimize his control of the territory he’s conquered and threatens to lead an assault on the capital of Kinshasa if he doesn’t get recognition.
More than 200,000 civilians have been driven from their homes by the fighting, adding to the nearly 800,000 already displaced. In addition to lack of food and medical care, there have been reports of selective killings by Nkunda’s troops, who also drove refugees from some camps. Government troops were reported to have looted and pillaged parts of Goma as they retreated early in the fighting.