Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Fears of war as Congo deployment infuriates Rwanda

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Fears of another war in central Africa grew on Monday as the Democratic Republic of Congo sent thousands of troops to its eastern frontier in a move branded hostile by Rwanda.

Up to 10,000 government soldiers have been flown east in a rapid build-up of force which reflects renewed tension between two neighbors who supposedly buried the hatchet last year.

Officials in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, said the deployment was an effort to secure a volatile region, rather than a warning to its old foe.

"Congo is not going to attack Rwanda," Congo Foreign Minister Antoine Ghonda said.

But the thousands of refugees swarming across the border into Burundi betrayed the widespread belief that the skirmishing between Congolese factions was the prelude to a wider conflict.

Kigali said Kinshasa seemed to be planning an invasion.

"From this side of the border it is a hostile action," an army spokesman said. "We look at it in the historical context of the region."

Burundian Foreign Minister Charles Muligande added: "Certainly we would not sit back and watch those developments."

extremists

Congo is the size of western Europe, but in fact it is tiny Rwanda which has done the invading, in 1996 and 1998, to hunt Hutu extremists implicated in the 1994 genocide.

The second invasion triggered a five-year war that sucked in six countries and killed more than 3 million people. It ended in a South African-brokered peace deal which is now in danger of crumbling.

Offers of military aid to Congo by Angola and Tanzania, and hints from Uganda and Zimbabwe that they would intervene if war resumed, dismayed western diplomats.

South African President Thabo Mbeki yesterday warned of a "potentially catastrophic war."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has dispatched diplomats to the region to follow up his pleas for restraint to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Under the peace deal, Kabila has shared power with former rebels in an unwieldy unity government tasked with rebuilding a shattered country and incorporating former foes into a single army before elections next year.

current crisis

The current crisis started this month when former rebel commanders who were supposed to be part of the new army reverted to type by seizing an eastern city, Bukavu, on the pretext of protecting Congolese Tutsis from "ethnic cleansing."

Kinshasa's forces retook Bukavu a week later, but the attack infuriated Kabila. He said the renegades were backed by their former paymaster, Rwanda, which was accused of slipping units back across the border.

The flare-up damaged the credibility of the 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, exposing it as overstretched and unpopular with the Kinshasa loyalists.

The renegades, numbering several thousand men, have not openly renounced the peace deal, but are continuing to destabilize the south and north Kivu provinces.

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