Hutu militias key to Congo conflict

by Todd Pitman,, November 2, 2008

The international community is scrambling to organize a summit to prevent a resumption of the fighting in Congo that has displaced a quarter-million people in recent weeks. But the conflict will be tough to end without resolving an issue at its heart - the presence of Hutu militias who participated in Rwanda's genocide.

The Hutu fighters fled to Congo in 1994 after helping massacre more than a half-million Tutsis. They remain there untouched, heavily armed, and in control of lucrative mines in remote hills and forests.

Congo's ethnic Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, has used the threat they pose to justify carving out his own fiefdom in the mineral-rich east.

That fiefdom grew dramatically in recent days as his fighters advanced dozens of kilometers (miles) south to the gates of the provincial capital, Goma, forcing a beleaguered army and humiliated U.N. peacekeepers to retreat.

Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire and suddenly halted his advance. It's unclear why, but there was certainly intense diplomatic pressure to do so. And seizing a city that's home to hundreds of thousands of people and serves as the regional headquarters of the U.N. and aid groups could have been difficult.

Either way, an immediate resumption of fighting is unlikely. Congo's notoriously undisciplined army easily crumbled against Nkunda's advance, showing it will not stand and fight. European officials have played down the possibility of sending another foreign force. The 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo is already the largest in the world.

The new status quo will allow Nkunda to profit from any mineral riches and taxes in his freshly seized territories - giving him another bargaining chip at any negotiating table.

The U.N., the European Union and the African Union are pushing for a summit soon with leaders from Congo and Rwanda. Details are vague and no date has been set.

Past peace talks have yielded agreements, but sparse results.

In a deal late last year meant to help end the fighting, Rwanda and Congo agreed to work together to disarm and repatriate thousands of the Hutu fighters from the so-called Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. Shortly afterward, Nkunda and Congo's government agreed on a January cease-fire deal.

But Congolese action against the Hutu fighters never materialized, and sporadic fighting involving all sides soon resumed. In parts of North Kivu, Hutu militias man roadblocks so openly that aid workers have highlighted the zones they control on their own regional maps.

Nkunda accuses Congo's army of supplying the Hutu extremists with arms, while Congo accuses Nkunda of getting support from Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.

Nkunda claims he must fight to protect Tutsis. But many residents of eastern Congo view Nkunda with deep distrust and say he is a Rwandan puppet. They charge that he has exaggerated threats to the minority Tutsi community and is more interested in power and exploiting lucrative mineral riches than protecting Tutsis.

The Rwandan Hutus fled to Congo in 1994 after the former Rwandan government organized the slaughter of more than half a million mostly Tutsi civilians. Some lived in overflowing refugee camps around Goma, and by 1996 their leaders launched an insurgency and began carrying out cross-border attacks into Rwanda, killing more Tutsis.

Fed up, Rwanda attacked the camps and drove on to Congo's capital, Kinshasa, installing late Congolese rebel leader Laurent Kabila as president in 1997.

Eager to prove his independence, Kabila in 1998 expelled the Rwandans Tutsis who brought him to power - one was his army chief of staff. Three days later, Rwanda organized another Congolese rebellion, and along with Uganda, seized eastern Congo in a war that drew in half a dozen African nations and lasted until 2002.

Since then, Congo formed a unity government that gave top posts to rebels. Kabila's son Joseph won historic elections in 2006. Former Rwandan-allied Tutsi rebels like Nkunda were integrated into the army, but expressed frustration over the government's hesitancy to go after the Hutu militias who had served as their de facto allies during the war. The former general quit the army in 2004 and launched a rebellion.

Nkunda's fighters have gone after the Hutu militias on their own but neither he nor anyone else has been able to eradicate them: not Rwanda's army when it occupied the east, not U.N. peacekeepers, and certainly not Congo's army.

Whenever the next round of negotiations begins, another peace deal will be on the table. But until the Rwandan Hutu militias are eradicated, Nkunda's rebels will almost certainly not disarm - setting the stage for more conflict.

Their fighting with the government has left about 250,000 people have been displaced since August, according to the U.N. A decade of insecurity had already left nearly 800,000 others homeless in North Kivu - a startling high number for a provincial population of 6 million.

Without disarmament of the Hutu militias, Congo appears likely to remain where it has been for more than a decade: the epicenter of a humanitarian mess with no clear solution in sight.



Associated Press West Africa Bureau Chief Todd Pitman has covered Congo and its neighbors for more than a decade.

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