KINSHASA, Congo (AP) – In a stunning reversal of alliances, Rwandan troops captured Congo’s most powerful rebel leader, a longtime ally who the Congolese government says was at the heart of years of war in the east, officials said Friday.
Congo applauded the surprise arrest, hoping it would herald a new era of peace and mark the end of the Central African nation’s Tutsi rebellion. But few believe the country’s problems are over and many fear the unprecedented and unpopular deal with former enemy Rwanda is a risky gamble that could unleash more bloodshed.
Rwanda detained Laurent Nkunda apparently as part of an agreement with Congo that opened the way for thousands of Rwandan soldiers to cross the border this week in a joint operation to hunt down Rwandan Hutu militiamen.
The region has been mired in conflict since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide spilled war across the border and Hutu militias sought refuge here. Rwanda has invaded twice to eradicate the militias – though it was accused of plundering Congo’s great mineral riches instead. The militia’s presence also gave birth in 2004 to Nkunda’s rebellion, whose raison d’etre was defending minority Tutsis against Rwandan Hutus.
It was a remarkable fall from grace for once-powerful Nkunda, who only weeks ago had forced Congo’s embattled government to the negotiate at peace talks in Kenya after his fighters advanced to the outskirts of the regional capital, Goma, forcing more than 250,000 people from their homes.
Analysts say Rwanda was under intense international pressure to use its influence over the Tutsi rebellion to end the crisis. At the same time, Rwanda and a clique of rebel commanders had grown disenchanted by Nkunda, who they increasingly regarded as a flippant, authoritarian megalomaniac who allegedly embezzled money from rebel coffers.
Late Thursday, Rwandan and Congolese troops converged on Nkunda’s stronghold in the tiny electricity-less town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border, said government spokesman Lambert Mende. Nkunda’s forces resisted and briefly opened fire before fleeing farther south and crossing into Rwanda, he said.
Rwandan troops on the other side of the border took Nkunda into custody because forces loyal to him resisted the operation, Rwandan army spokesman Maj. Jill Rutaremara said.
“Whoever resists the smooth running of the joint operation is a barrier,” Rutaremara said by telephone from Tanzania. “He was a barrier.”
Mende applauded the arrest, calling it “a positive development for pacifying and securing the region.” He also said he hoped Rwanda would extradite Nkunda to face trial.
Congo’s government issued an international warrant against Nkunda in 2005 for war crimes and rights abuses allegedly committed when his fighters seized the lakeside city of Bukavu a year earlier.
Nkunda was the country’s most powerful rebel, commanding a fiefdom fueled by forced taxation. His thousands-strong army skirmished frequently with government forces and their Hutu militia allies in the terraced green hills of the east.
But earlier this month, Nkunda suffered a devastating blow when his top commanders – likely encouraged by Rwanda – broke away and formed a splinter faction. They then promised a radical change: They would integrate their fighters into the national army they spent years fighting and hunt down the Hutu militias with them.
Their new chief, Bosco Ntaganda, may have been attracted by a possible promise not to extradite him, analysts say. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers.
Mende, the government spokesman, said despite Ntaganda’s past, he was not wanted by the government. “There is no warrant against him here,” Mende said. “For now we are interested in peace in the east.”
The ouster of Nkunda removes Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s main internal nemesis and allows the central government to take back huge swaths of territory previously in rebel hands. But inviting Rwanda into Congo is a huge political gamble that could endanger the nation’s first democratically elected government in 40 years and destabilize the country.
Rwandan troops are deeply unpopular after occupying the east from 1998-2002 along with Uganda. Many associate them with the exploitation of minerals and the ruthless slaughter of countless Hutu refugees and militias who fled westward as Rwanda invaded in 1996 to end a wave of post-genocide cross-border attacks.
Congo already has taken a similar risk with Uganda – inviting its army into the northeast to help fight off Ugandan rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army, who have terrorized villagers for months. Though Uganda dislodged the rebels from their main bases, the insurgents went on a horrific rampage, slaughtering more than 600 civilians, human rights groups say.
Aid groups warn Rwanda’s fierce army also could provoke similar retaliatory attacks by Hutu militias, and civilians could die in the crossfire of any new violence. Nearly 1 million people are already displaced in North Kivu province, roughly a sixth of its population.
The U.N.’s 17,000-strong peacekeeping force was humiliated by Nkunda’s advance toward Goma late last year, unable to stop key towns from falling. The U.N. mission has been sidelined in the latest deal, too, prevented from being a part of the joint operation between the two countries.
On Friday, the U.N. issued a statement saying it hopes the remnants of the Tutsi rebel force will take advantage of the new developments to integrate into the army.
However, integration is easier said than done. Previous peace agreements saw Tutsi rebels join the army, but rebels broke away again in 2007 and relaunched their insurgency.
The rebels, like their Hutu militia rivals, also bear a history of atrocities that will be difficult to ignore. Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda’s command, both in the central city of Kisangani in 2002 and in Bukavu.
And during the latest fighting last year, the New York-based rights group says Nkunda’s fighters massacred dozens of civilians in the town of Kiwanja.
Independent Congo analyst Jason Stearns said everything hinges on the success of operations against the Hutu militia, known by its French acronym, FDLR.
“If they can get rid of FDLR or at least put a serious dent in their leadership, then yes, this could lead to stabilization of the east,” Stearns said. “But if operations lead to reprisals of the local population … the FDLR isn’t dismantled, the Rwandans are still there and the (Tutsi rebels) are not integrated, Kabila will have hard time justifying this.”
Todd Pitman reported from Dakar, Senegal and Malkhadir M. Muhumed from Nairobi, Kenya.