Rwandan troops began pulling out of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) on Wednesday, bringing to an end a joint military operation that temporarily saw the sworn enemies fighting for the same cause.
DR Congo allowed Rwandan troops to enter Congolese soil late last month in order to hunt down the remnants of an extremist Hutu militia accused of orchestrating the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
At the end of the 100-day slaughter, the Hutu fighters fled across DR Congo’s border, setting up bases in the country’s forested hills.
Lieutenant-General John Numbi, who headed the operation, said the month-long offensive had been a success, even if members of the militia were still at large.
Numbi, a Congolese, said at a military parade marking the end of the operation: “The enemy has not been completely wiped out, but their ability to operate has been greatly reduced.”
He said 153 Hutu combatants were killed, 37 were captured and 103 were repatriated to Rwanda.
Rwanda has long accused DR Congo of offering refuge to the Hutu militia and twice invaded the country in the 1990s, plunging the Central African nation into war. DR Congo, in turn, has accused Rwanda of funding a Tutsi-led rebel group. The group, based in eastern DR Congo, said its aim was to stamp out the Hutu extremists, but instead they have been accused of atrocities on Congolese civilians.
That DR Congo allowed Rwanda to enter its territory marked a major turning point.
Analysts say one of the key reasons DR Congo acquiesced is because Rwanda promised to arrest Laurent Nkunda, the warlord heading the Tutsi rebel group. He was arrested Jan. 22 by the Rwandan military, two days after an estimated 4,000 Rwandan troops entered DR Congo.
Nkunda had long been rumored to be a puppet of the Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government and the relationship between the two was detailed in a recent UN report.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal has stoked fears that Hutu rebels will step up reprisals against civilians and retake ground they lost during the offensive.
The operation has seen the most concerted pressure on the rebels in years but diplomats question whether it will end years of violence. Thousands of rebels remain in the bush, farming, mining and living off local villagers.
The pullout has prompted fears within the UN’s biggest peacekeeping force that the mainly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels, who have mostly avoided clashes with the joint force, will seek revenge.
“The planned pullout of [Rwandan] troops raises concerns about the protection of the civilian population, given the limited capacity and professionalism of [Congolese] troops,” an internal UN memorandum read.
“Although the FDLR has mostly vacated the areas upon the arrival of the joint forces, it is likely that they are waiting in the bush for the forces to retreat and then come back to retaliate on civilians perceived as being traitors,” it said.
The UN is investigating numerous attacks on civilians blamed on the FDLR. New York-based Human Rights Watch says the the rebels have massacred more than 100 civilians accused of betraying them since the start of the operations on Jan. 20.