The Rwandan president’s response to this and other questions during a press videoconference organised on Monday 27 April, was highly anticipated. When asked about the increasingly frequent allegations regarding the participation of Rwandan soldiers in operations conducted by the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) in eastern DRC, Paul Kagame unsurprisingly firmly denied them.
“The DRC government knows that there isn’t a single Rwandan soldier in eastern DRC. You can believe me when I say that there aren’t any Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) soldiers in that part of the world,” he said, referring to the situation in South Kivu.
In recent days, it’s mostly civilians in North Kivu and certain elected officials, including Juvénal Munubo, the member of parliament representing Walikale (North Kivu), who have reported the presence of RDF soldiers in this eastern province of the DRC rife with many armed groups hostile to Kigali, including rebels belonging to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
They have also called on the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism (EJVM) put in place by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) to weigh in on the issue.
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Meanwhile, the Kivu Security Tracker, a project set up by Human Rights Watch and the Congo Research Group, based at New York University, has confirmed on several occasions over the past months that Rwandan soldiers were working alongside FARDC forces as they carried out operations.
The most recent incident alert, dated 24 April, concerns a FARDC-led offensive against a faction of FDLR forces in Rutshuru territory (North Kivu) in which, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, Rwandan soldiers allegedly took part. When contacted, a source at the monitoring mechanism of the Addis Ababa agreement denied these allegations.
The controversy isn’t new, even though until now it has systematically been denied by authorities in both Kinshasa and Kigali.
Military cooperation between the DRC and Rwanda had previously been stepped up during the last six months of Joseph Kabila’s regime, with the repatriation of demobilised FDLR soldiers and the December 2018 arrest of two high-ranking officials of the rebel group by Congolese law enforcement. However, the cooperation has been propelled even further since Félix Tshisekedi took office.
After a disputed election, the Congolese president swiftly moved to initiate a rapprochement with his regional neighbours, targeting Rwanda in particular, despite some misgivings within his own camp.
Tshisekedi’s stated goal at the time was to foster cooperation between the various regional partners in the fight against armed groups present in eastern DRC.
Although this joint military project has never materialised, Kigali and Kinshasa have consolidated their military cooperation, raising questions regarding its scope, which have only been heightened by the death of several officials from FDLR and dissident factions of the rebel group during the last three months of 2019.
Like Sylvestre Mudacumura and Jean-Michel Africa, some of these armed group chiefs had spent several decades in the region.
‘Joint intelligence team’
According to the official line, the cooperation is limited to intelligence swapping. Tshisekedi notably mentioned this during an interview with the French daily Le Monde and television network TV5 Monde back in September 2019.
Kagame commented on the subject during his press videoconference, alluding to how the two countries share information on rebel groups in North Kivu province.
“Fortunately, the Congolese government has agreed to work in collaboration with the countries of the region, its neighbours, in an attempt to resolve this problem of armed groups which has been going on for decades,” said the Rwandan president.
He continued: “For some people, it is apparently not a good thing[…] We provide information to our partners in the region, including the United Nations, about these activities. We have also given information to the Congolese government and they have started to act on the basis of some of the information we have given them, because they have had the opportunity to verify it and see what is growing in North Kivu.”
When asked about the framework of the cooperation at the end of 2019, a senior Congolese officer confirmed the existence of a “joint intelligence team [ECR] which brings together civilian and military data collected by the two countries to provide them to units of the Armed Forces of the DRC [FARDC], which specialise in operations against rebel groups,” ensuring that recently killed FDLR rebel chiefs were taken out based on such intelligence.
Presence of Burundian troops
While he denied there being any Rwandan soldiers in South Kivu, Kagame nonetheless assured that he had intelligence reporting the presence of government-backed Burundian troops in the province where rebel groups, particularly RED-Tabara, a movement hostile to Gitega’s government, are known to be found.
The Burundi authorities did not respond to our requests for comment.
Théo Ngwabidje, the governor of South Kivu, rejected such reports as being “uncorroborated information and rumours at this stage” and assured that the Congolese armed forces “have gotten involved to verify the situation on the ground in order to track down any local or foreign negative forces in the province.”
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