Rwandan troops crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Tuesday, opening their joint campaign with the Congolese army to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels operating as the FDLR in North Kivu. The DRC says the Rwandan presence on Congolese soil is an observation mission, but about 2,000 Rwandan soldiers are believed to have made the crossing.
The invitation Congolese President Joseph Kabila issued to Rwanda represents a bizarre reversal of position. The two countries currently have no diplomatic relations and have spent several years accusing each other of fighting a proxy war in the Kivus. Rwanda was reported to be backing Laurent Nkunda and the CNDP, a Tutsi militia that nearly overran Goma in November. At one point, Nkunda declared his intention to march across the DRC and overthrow Kabila’s government. He has apparently since been deposed by his own military commander, Bosco Ntaganda, who said he wants to bring the CNDP army into the fold of the FARDC, the Conglese army, and join in the action against the FDLR.
The joint operation excludes the UN, and considerable concern has been expressed by aid organizations that the fighting will exacerbate already dreadful conditions for the civilian population. A Reuters reporter north of Goma in the town of Kibati said Congolese army soldiers were stopping all vehicles, including U.N. peacekeepers, from going north.
Concern for civilians is well-placed, since a similar joint operation between the Ugandan army and the Congolese to track down Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army farther north in Orientale province has resulted in hundreds if not thousands of civilian deaths and put many thousand refugees out of their homes. Reports from Radio Okapi say that Kony’s rebels set fire to a church full of worshipers a few days ago, burning them alive before attacking other communities in the towns of Tora and Libombi located about 130 km from Dungu, the military base of the joint Ugandan-Congolese operation. Before that incident, Human Rights Watch said over 600 civilians have been killed by the LRA.