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Rwanda remains entangled with Congo

The UN points to Rwanda as the driving force behind latest insurgency.

Rwanda children turned into child soldiers. Picture: AFP

KIWANJA - Four years after dozens of his neighbours in the remote eastern Congolese village of Kiwanja were butchered by rebels, Olivier has a sense of a recurring nightmare.

Insurgents once again stalk the village's abandoned streets and fearful residents crowd for safety at the shut gates of the nearby U.N. peacekeepers' base as gunfire shatters the silence and government troops retreat in chaos.

As with a previous 2004-2009 rebellion, Congo's leaders, U.N. experts and regional analysts point to small but militarily powerful neighbour Rwanda as the driving force behind this latest insurgency to test Kinshasa's tenuous hold over the east.

After wars in the 1990s, Rwanda withdrew troops from Congo in 2002. But Congo watchers say Rwanda's security apparatus has continued to project its military, political and economic interests across the border, using armed groups as proxies.

Kiwanja resident Olivier, who withheld his surname fearing reprisals, believes many of the same fighters that carried out the 2008 massacre that killed 150 people in his village have returned as part of the new rebellion.

"For me, it's the same movement, just changed its name," said 20-year-old Olivier, referring to the M23 rebels who have seized territory north of Goma in eastern North Kivu province in recent months, forcing over 270,000 people from their homes.

The United Nations linked Rwanda to the rebels behind the last revolt, which finally ended in 2009 when Rwanda arrested the Congolese Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, who denies his forces were behind the massacre in Olivier's village.

For a time, Rwanda and Congo cooperated and Nkunda's former fighters, the CNDP, were integrated into the Congolese army. But that deal has fallen apart, and the new rebels say they have taken up arms again because the Congo government reneged on it.

Meanwhile, Congolese who have known relentless war and rebellion for the past 18 years, see more killing ahead. Jean Mwendo, one of thousands living with no shelter on muddy roads on the outskirts of Goma after fleeing fighting, said he had to leave his parents behind because they were too weak to leave.

"Before it was the CNDP who made war. Now it's M23. We think it's the same... It's Rwanda who cause all the war in the east."

DENIAL DOUBTED

Rwanda strongly denies backing the M23. A small country that has long been held up by Western governments and businessmen as a model of reform, Rwanda jealously guards its reputation.

But Western countries have made clear they do not believe its denials. Several, including the United States, Britain and Sweden, have frozen aid over accusations that Rwanda is waging proxy war across the border.

"Rwanda has maintained covert capacity to shape events in the east (of Congo). They never let go," said Ben Shepherd, a British ex-diplomat who has followed the region for 10 years.

"There is a complex stew of economic, nationalistic and ethnic drivers as to why they are doing it," he added.

Rwanda, whose army first entered Congo in 1996 and fought in two wars there, says it is being made a scapegoat for the Congo government's and wider world's failures to bring peace to the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony at the heart of Africa.

"We are kind of really getting tired of getting caught up in a conflict that's not ours," said Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister.

When U.N. experts drafted a report, leaked in June, citing evidence that senior Rwandan military officials had been backing the M23 rebellion, the Rwandan government issued a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal that condemned the report as one-sided.

Independent Great Lakes expert Jason Stearns believes the festering eastern Congo conflict is eroding one of Rwanda's biggest assets: its status as model of post-conflict development lauded by world leaders and business executives.

"The biggest damage that's happening to Rwanda right now is the damage to its reputation," he said.

Congo's geography of vast, impenetrable rainforest has long steered its eastern trade away from its own distant capital Kinshasa and towards Rwanda's much closer capital Kigali.

Congo's borderlands are separated from Kinshasa by more than 1,500 km (900 miles). There are no year-round roads and a decrepit aviation sector.

By contrast, traders in Goma, lakeside capital of Congo's North Kivu province, can cross the Rwandan border and drive just a few hours on gleaming highways to its capital Kigali, where a modern airport boast flights to far-flung hubs like Dubai.

David Katumba, vice president of the Federation of Congolese Enterprises lamented that Congolese businessmen keep millions of dollars in Rwanda's banks: "With our weakness, it's given them (Rwanda) an opportunity to do what they want with us."