Four senior Rwandan army officers arrested earlier this week were in charge of stopping the smuggling of minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo into Rwanda, a military spokesman said on Thursday.
Three generals and a colonel were suspended from duty and placed under house arrest late on Tuesday, accused of illegal business dealings in Rwanda’s -resource-rich neighbor.
“Some of these generals ... were actually in charge of these operations fighting the illegal trade in minerals,” Rwanda Defense Force spokesman Colonel Joseph Nzabamwita said.
“These top military officers were engaged with civilians, these civilians that were engaging in businesses in Congo against the laws of Rwanda,” he said in the capital, Kigali.
The four officers have been named as Fred Ibingira, Richard Rutatina, Wilson Gumisiriza and Dan Munyuza.
A UN report published last month said industry analysts believed Rwanda’s real output of tin, tungsten and tantalum ores was smaller than its recorded production, suggesting material from Congo was being smuggled into Rwanda and labeled as Rwandan.
Nzabamwita denied the arrests were linked to the report and said Rwanda was determined to curb smuggling.
“If there is a cross-border act that breaks the law and they are in charge, they are responsible for that,” he said.
Rwanda’s mineral exports were worth US$150 million last year, according to the Rwandan Ministry of Natural Resources.
Great Lakes analyst Jason Stearns said it was the first time in years that Rwandan officers had been linked to illegal trade in Congo.
“These arrests are very significant. The officers concerned are big names in the army,” Stearns said.
“These are the first major arrests since 2010, when other members of the top brass were arrested. Back then, most thought it was linked to a dissident faction within the military. It is unclear whether these arrests follow the same logic,” he added.
The two generals arrested in April 2010 were accused of corruption and misconduct. Some former military allies of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and government officials have fled into exile after falling out with him.
“The latest arrests may very well be justified, we will have to wait for more evidence to emerge, but certainly many Rwandans will be skeptical,” said Phil Clark, a Rwanda expert at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Kagame’s easy re-election in August 2010 underlined his domination of the country’s political arena.
The former rebel leader rose to power in the wake of the 1994 genocide, since when he has been widely praised for restoring stability and engineering Rwanda’s economic recovery.
Kagame’s critics, however, accuse him of keeping an excessively tight grip on the political and military leadership, and of trampling on media freedoms.
Diplomats and government sources have in the past said rifts within the ruling elite risked undermining national stability.
Congo has struggled to tackle rebel groups and criminal elements in its own armed forces that haunt the densely forested east and enrich themselves from illegal mining. The vast country has some of the world’s largest mineral deposits, including tin and coltan, used in making cell phones and computers.