Intensifying violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is raising fears of a wider conflict in what has been one of the most volatile regions of Africa for decades.
Tensions are growing between the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda after the Rwandan army shot at a Congolese fighter jet last month. The Rwandan government said “defensive measures” had been required because the plane violated its airspace, but the DRC denied that claim and said the shooting was “an act of war”.
The jet “landed safely”, said the BBC, but the attack marked a “major escalation” in hostilities between the two nations that followed months of internal conflict in eastern Congo.
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Why are tensions high between DRC and Rwanda?
UN experts, Western governments and DRC officials have accused Rwanda of backing a rebel group called M23 that has seized swathes of territory in Congo’s North Kivu province over the past year.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame denies the allegation and has accused his Congolese counterpart, Felix Tshisekedi, of allowing a security risk to neighbouring nations by failing to take action against the violence.
Rwanda says its “biggest concern” is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), one of the “more than 120 armed groups” active in eastern Congo, The Washington Post reported.
The leaders of DRC are alleged to back the FDLR, which was created by ethnic Hutus from Rwanda with links to the 1994 genocide in which almost a million people were killed, mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The M23 rebel group is fighting the FDLR, claiming it needs to “protect Congolese Tutsis who face discrimination”, said the paper.
Have other countries intervened?
The East Africa Community (EAC) sent thousands of troops from Kenya, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan to DRC in November to quell the fighting, just months after the nation joined the regional bloc.
The majority of the EAC force is made up of Kenyan soldiers, and with eastern Congo “facing its gravest crisis in a decade”, the show of Kenyan leadership “could not have been more timely”, said The Economist. But it has “not taken long for the mood to sour”.
Last month, police dispersed a demonstration in the DRC’s capital city of Goma that was called to “denounce the perceived inaction of Kenyan troops since they arrived there”.
And further riots this week have again “paralysed” Goma, Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor reported. The protesters are calling on the regional force deployed in the city to either counter M23 rebels or leave.
Will the crisis lead to war?
The ongoing unrest is the “closest the two countries have come to a direct confrontation in recent years”, said the BBC. The tensions are a “spill-over” of the 1994 genocide, the broadcaster continued.
After some of the killers fled into what is now DR Congo, Rwanda sent troops to the neighbouring country to stop attacks being carried out by Hutu militias. But the Rwandan troops were also “accused of looting the region's mineral riches”, as were other intervention forces.
Over the past year, more than half a million people have been displaced by clashes between Congolese armed forces and M23 fighters, according to a UN situation report published last month.
The UN, which has “thousands” of peacekeeping troops in Congo, has joined the US and other nations in “voicing serious concern about deteriorating humanitarian conditions”, said The Washington Post.
The last “full-scale” war in the region was in 1998, when Rwanda and Uganda invaded after Hutu armies were allowed to regroup in eastern Congo. The invasion triggered a conflict that drew in several other African nations and claimed millions of lives before a peace deal was agreed in 2003.
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