Fragile Africa Peace Jeopardized by Slow UN Disarmament, Invasion Threats

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:15pm EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - The United States has voiced strong opposition to any move by the small central African nation of Rwanda to take military action against its giant western neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Accusing the United Nations of acting too slowly to disarm rebels sheltering in the DRC, Rwanda's government has warned it may send armed forces across the border to its neighbor's eastern area, a move that could threaten the region's fragile peace efforts.

Washington plans to send a senior official to the region to promote an agreement designed to handle disputes.

Rwanda and the DRC are among the most politically frail countries in Africa. They have gone to war twice in the last decade and face frequent internal rebellions.

Rwanda alleges that its neighbor harbors some 15,000 militiamen from the region's Hutu ethnic group whom it holds responsible for attempting to carry out genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi minority a decade ago.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has now threatened to send troops across the border into the DRC in search of the rebels and former army troops who fled after the 1994 crisis.

DRC President Joseph Kabila responded by describing Kagame's threat as "exploitative and predatory" and saying he would send 10,000 troops to expel Rwandan forces from his country.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. was "unequivocally opposed to unilateral military action" by Rwanda and urged the two nations to use diplomatic channels to resolve the conflict.

DRC is ruled by a transitional government installed after the successful end of a four-year war in the country that drew in troops from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia on one side and Rwanda and Uganda on the other.

"Now is the time to build on these successes, not to risk reversing them," Boucher said.

The U.S. plans to send Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto to the region to advance a "Tripartite Agreement" signed by the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, laying a foundation for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The peace deal signed when Rwanda withdrew its last troops from the DRC about a year ago stipulated that all Hutu rebels must be disarmed.

Representatives of the U.N. Security Council who recently visited the DRC gave the U.N. Mission there, known by its French acronym MONUC, a clear mandate to use force if necessary to disarm armed combatants and protect civilians.

But Kagame complains that the process has been too slow and says his government therefore has no choice but to take action.

"As long as the U.N. and other countries fail to disarm these militias, it is left upon us to do it," Kagame told the Rwandan parliament earlier this week.

Working together with the Congolese army, MONUC began a new disarmament operation several weeks ago in a province called South Kivu, intended to persuade Hutu militia and other armed groups to give up their weapons and return to civilian life.

Alison Des Forges, an expert on Rwanda, warned that if Rwanda made good on its threat, hopes for successful disarmament may be significantly diminished.

Des Forges, an advisor to New York-based Human Rights Watch's Africa division, said the disarmament effort faces difficulties and has not yet had a chance to prove its usefulness.

Additional MONUC troops and equipment, needed to make the disarmament program a success, were only now arriving in the DRC and would have to be "hurried to the east," she said.

Meanwhile, a U.N. investigation is underway into more than 150 allegations of sexual abuse involving MONUC members. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the probe into the complaints, which include allegation of sexual exploitation of minors.

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