Rwandan troops fought alongside M23 rebels in DR Congo: UN experts

Civilians flee fighting in North Kivu province in May 2024 (ALEXIS HUGUET)
Civilians flee fighting in North Kivu province in May 2024 (ALEXIS HUGUET)

Some 3,000-4,000 Rwandan soldiers fought alongside M23 rebels in east DR Congo, said a UN expert report seen by AFP Monday, which noted that Kigali had "de facto control" of the group's operations.

The DR Congo's North Kivu province has been in the grip of the M23 (March 23 Movement) rebellion since the end of 2021, with the group seizing swathes of territory and installing a parallel regime in areas under its control.

Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group. Kigali has never acknowledged its troops were operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But the report commissioned by the UN Security Council said the Rwandan army's "de facto control and direction over M23 operations" renders the country "liable for the actions of M23".

Rwandan military activity in Nyiragongo, Rutshuru and Masisi territories -- all in North Kivu -- "were critical to the impressive territorial expansion achieved between January and March 2024" by the M23, the report stated.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo accused the Democratic Republic of Congo of having "consistently threatened war on Rwanda", and said Kigali "will continue to defend itself".

The report's researchers estimated that at time of writing in April, Rwandan troops were "matching if not surpassing" the number of M23 soldiers, thought to be at around 3,000.

Until the end of 2023, Rwandan authorities publicly denied that their troops were operating alongside M23 rebels in North Kivu, but have not directly commented since then.

The report contains authenticated photographs, drone footage, video recordings, testimony and intelligence, which it says confirm the Rwandan military's systematic border incursions.

The footage and photos show uniformed men with artillery and armoured vehicles featuring radar and anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as troop carriers.

The UN's Special Representative in DRC Bintou Keita told AFP that "M23 tend to dictate what (UN) peacekeepers can or cannot do" -- taking a toll on relief operations and local people.

"I think it's unacceptable that an armed group under sanctions is going  to dictate to a peacekeeping mission," said Keita, also head of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force in the country which is due to withdraw from North Kivu at Kinshasa's request.

She earlier said that Rwandan support was "enabling (M23) to make major territorial gains across Eastern DRC".

Washington's UN envoy Stephanie Sullivan called for the Security Council to oppose the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from North Kivu.

- Rwanda defiant -

Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on June 20 on France 24 "we are ready to fight" against DRC if necessary, although he avoided the question of Kigali's presence.

Washington, Paris and the EU have called for months for Rwanda to withdraw its forces and ground-to-air missiles from DRC and break with M23.

The M23 have seized swathes of territory over the past several years, almost completely encircling Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, killing scores and displacing hundreds of thousands.

There are already 2.8 million displaced people in North Kivu, according to the UN.

"The advances are clearly problematic in terms of the internally displaced people," Keita said.

- Minors recruited -

The report added that children from the age of 12 have been recruited from "almost all refugee camps in Rwanda" to be sent to training camps in rebel areas under the supervision of Rwandan soldiers and M23 combatants.

The recruitment of minors in Rwanda was generally carried out by intelligence officers "through false promises of remuneration or employment" and that those "who did not consent were taken forcefully," it added.

During their offensives the M23 and Rwandan army "specifically targeted localities, predominantly inhabited by Hutus, in areas known to be strongholds of FDLR" -- the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

The FDLR is a Rwandan rebel group formed by former senior Hutu officials behind the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994, who have since taken refuge in DR Congo.

- Ugandan support -

The presence of the group in eastern DRC is considered a threat by Kigali.

The international community has called for an end to foreign interference and also urged Kinshasa to distance itself from the FDLR.

But the DRC government has used several "North Kivu armed groups, including the FDLR," to fight M23 and the Rwandan military, the report said.

This mixture of armed groups fighting alongside the Congolese army is known as the Wazalendo -- Swahili for patriots.

The expert authors accused the Wazalendo of human rights violations and alleged "active support" for the M23 from Ugandan intelligence services members.

Ugandan forces work alongside the Congolese army to fight another rebel group affiliated with the Islamic State group, some 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the area under M23 control.

ah-bur-gw/bfm