NAIROBI, Kenya — Pressure is building on Rwanda as further evidence emerges of its support to Congolese rebels led by war crimes suspect Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, whose mutiny earlier this year cast eastern Congo into fresh turmoil.
Rwanda is supplying up to 300 Rwandan recruits and funneling arms and ammunition across the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo to bolster Ntaganda’s rebellion that began in March, reported Human Rights Watch, citing interviews with nearly two dozen rebel defectors.
Similar charges were made in an internal UN report written last month and seen by GlobalPost.
Sources also told GlobalPost that UN investigators monitoring the arms embargo on eastern Congo are coming under “intense pressure” not to include evidence of Rwandan support to the rebels in their report, currently in draft form before the Security Council.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government has rejected all the allegations, branding the latest ones from Human Rights Watch as an “act of reckless media showmanship.”
“The irresponsible words of lobbies like Human Rights Watch are no less dangerous than bullets or machetes,” said Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.
But Human Rights Watch defends its findings. “The role played by some Rwandan military officials in supporting and harboring an ICC war crimes suspect can’t just be swept under the rug,” said Anneke Van Woundenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Rwandan government should immediately stop all support to Ntaganda and assist in his arrest.”
Rwanda has a history of supporting armed groups across its border with Congo, used to hunt down Rwandan Hutus linked to the country’s 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans were killed. Rwanda is also accused of profiting from eastern Congo’s rich mineral deposits.
The new reports from the UN and Human Rights Watch, make a convincing case that Rwanda continues to support the Congo rebels.
Deserters, including some believed to be under 18 years old, told Human Rights Watch of being recruited in Rwanda, some forcibly and some under false pretences believing they were joining the Rwandan army.
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They say they were taken to a Rwandan military camp at Kinigi, the base for Rwanda’s gorilla tourism industry and Ntaganda’s hometown. From there the recruits described being led across the border where they were forced into the rebel ranks at a base around Runyoni, in eastern Congo.
One of those interviewed said anyone who attempted to escape was summarily executed. “I saw six people who were killed because they tried to flee. They were shot dead, and I was ordered to bury their bodies,” he told researchers.
Rwanda is also accused of supplying the eastern Congo rebels with assault rifles, machine guns, ammunition, grenades and anti-aircraft missiles.
This support has helped them hold their ground on three hills a few miles from the Rwandan border, despite assaults by the much stronger Congolese army.
Human Rights Watch also said it had evidence that Rwanda had allowed Ntaganda free movement across its border in contravention of a UN-imposed travel ban.
In its report Human Rights Watch stops short of blaming the Kigali government, referring instead to “Rwandan military officers.” But observers say it is “highly unlikely” that such activities could go on without the direct knowledge of Kagame’s government.
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Evidence of Rwandan involvement in eastern Congo is mounting, although the extent of its support and its motivation are still unclear, said Jason Stearns, a Congo expert at the Kenya-based Rift Valley Institute.
Kigali has dismissed allegations of support to Ntaganda’s rebellion as “categorically false and dangerous” arguing that it does not benefit from insecurity on its border. But analysts point to a cross-border constellation of Rwandan security, economic, political and ethnic interests.
This is not the first time that Rwanda has been accused of meddling in its chaotic neighbor.
In 2008 a UN report accused Rwanda of backing a warlord, Laurent Nkunda, whose forces, known as the CNDP, that year briefly besieged the regional capital, Goma.
Nkunda was put under house arrest in Rwanda as part of a deal that saw him replaced by his deputy, Ntaganda, who in 2009 agreed to merge the CNDP into the Congolese army under terms that allowed it to maintain much of its command structure and control of both territory and the minerals trade.
In late March, as international pressure to arrest Ntaganda grew, he mutinied, taking with him hundreds of soldiers.
The rebellion has since spread and there is now daily fighting between the so-called M23 rebels (named for the March 23, 2009 peace deal) and the Congolese army. The conflict has forced more than 100,000 Congolese civilians from their homes, according to estimates.
The mutineers are mostly Tutsi soldiers and former members of the CNDP. Although Ntaganda and the M23 leaders deny working together, analysts are skeptical, and Human Rights Watch cited witnesses, who reported seeing them in the same area. Ntaganda remains in overall charge of the rebellion, they say.