The UN’s latest report by its panel of experts mentions operations led by Rwandan and Burundian armed forces in eastern DRC from late 2019 to October 2020. Operations that both Kigali and Gitega deny.
Have foreign contingents been intervening in eastern DRC since the end of 2019? That is a key conclusion of the UN Panel of Experts’ latest report on the DRC.
Released on 23 December 2020, the 200-page document states that “from late 2019 to early October 2020, members of the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) were present in North Kivu.”
According to it, “the Burundian army, alongside members of the Imbonerakure, also launched attacks on South Kivu between November 2019 and July 2020.” These interventions were allegedly carried out “in violation of the sanctions regime” because they were not reported to the UN committee responsible for ensuring compliance.
To support these accusations, the authors of the report say they rely on several pieces of evidence (documents, photographs, aerial images, etc.) and state that the presence of RDF has been confirmed in the territories of Nyiragongo, Rutshuru and Masisi.
They cite in particular a letter from Célestin Mbala, the Chief of Staff of the Congolese Armed Forces (FARDC), addressed on 22 April 2020 to the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). The last example mentioned by the group of experts dates back to 2 October 2020.
“Sixty members of the RDF carrying 18 PKM machine guns and four rocket launchers” were reportedly observed that day on Mount Rugomba in Rutshuru territory.
The supposed intervention of the Rwandan army has been fuelling suspicions and rumours for months. On numerous occasions, Congolese elected officials and members of civil society in North Kivu have warned of this presence.
The Kivu Security Tracker, a “security barometer” set up by Human Rights Watch and the New York University-based Congo Research Group, has also repeatedly asserted in recent months that Rwandan soldiers have been fighting alongside the FaRDC in various operations.
The deaths of several leaders of armed groups hostile to Kigali, including Sylvestre Mudacumura, the military leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) killed in September 2019, and Juvénal Musabimana, alias Jean-Michel Africa, shot dead in November 2019, had raised questions about the extent of the collaboration between Rwanda and the DRC.
Questioned on this issue by the Panel of Experts, the Rwandan government issued a letter denying its military presence in this neighbouring country and reiterated that the RDF had not conducted any joint operation with the FaRDC.
Solicited on numerous occasions, Presidents Félix Tshisekedi and Paul Kagame have systematically contested the existence of such operations, insisting that they were exchanges of intelligence.
Last April, at a press conference, Kagame welcomed the fact that the Congolese government was working with countries in the region to “solve the problem of armed groups, which has been going on for several decades.”
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“We are giving information to our partners in the region, including the UN and the Congolese government, who have started to act on the basis of some of it, because they were able to verify it and see for themselves what was happening in North Kivu,” said the Rwandan president.
At the same press conference, Kagame had also denied any presence of the Rwandan army in South Kivu, assuring nevertheless that the Burundian armed forces were in that province to hunt down the Red-tabara, an armed group hostile to Gitega. Invasions of the Fizi and Uvira territories which the UN Panel of Experts corroborates and which the FaRDC chief of staff’s letter also mentions.
The Burundian authorities, when asked, assured the UN experts that they “only deploy troops abroad in the framework of the African Union and UN peacekeeping operations.” The Congolese authorities, however, did not respond to the authors’ requests for comment prior to the publication of the report.