Congo's invitation to its longtime enemy Rwanda to deploy up to 2,000 troops marked an extraordinary reversal of alliances, but the Congolese government said Wednesday the Rwandan forces were there only to observe, not to fight Hutu militias.
Some fear the presence of Rwandan soldiers could spark more violence or lead to further destabilization in Congo. And the unusual deal may already be facing opposition: U.N.-backed Radio Okapi quoted the head of Congo's National Assembly, Vital Kamerhe, as saying he was shocked by the news and had not been informed about it beforehand.
Congo allowed the Rwandan troops to cross its border Tuesday, ostensibly as observers, to help disarm deeply entrenched Rwandan Hutu militias who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide, Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said.
But the size of the force suggests they will do more than observe, and any new fighting could provoke the militias and lead to more massacres, more displaced and more war in the already unstable central African giant.
Mende said Rwandan soldiers were on "an observation mission" to monitor how the army would disarm militias.
"Rwandan troops will not part engage in fighting," he told reporters in Kinshasa. Mende also said Congo wanted to disarm and repatriate the militias peacefully, "not kill them."
Weak Congo army
Rwandan Hutus, however, may not lay down arms without a fight. Many have refused to go home, saying they cannot get fair trials in Rwanda, which says they will face justice for any crimes committed during the genocide.
Last month, Congo President Joseph Kabila's government struck a similar deal with Uganda, which is now leading operations in northeastern Congo with Sudanese and Congolese troops against the brutal Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army.
Forced to flee their bases, the Ugandan rebels scattered into small groups, slaughtering more than 600 civilians in apparent retaliation, the New York-based Human Rights Watch group said. There are fears the Rwandan militias could do the same further south, or that large numbers of civilians could die in military operations to oust the Rwandans.
Both Uganda and Rwanda invaded Congo in 1998 and left only after a 2002 peace agreement ended a war that drew in more than half a dozen African armies. The invitations to come back now marks a rare acknowledgment by Kabila that Congo's weak army, mostly known for looting their own people and fleeing battlefields, is unable to secure the east.
Congo's president is eager to regain control of land lost in October and November to rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda's mostly ethnic Tutsi, Rwandan-allied forces. Fighting then between the Congo army and Nkunda's forces displaced at least 250,000 people.
Nkunda's rebels greatly expanded their territory during the skirmishes, advancing to the outskirts of the regional capital, Goma, and forcing Congo's army into a humiliating retreat.
The 18,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo was unable to stop the violence or protect civilians.
For Kabila's government in the faraway capital, Kinshasa, the status quo left few options.
"There was a deep frustration in Kinshasa with the lack of military pressure they can bring to bear" against the rebels, said independent Congo expert Jason Stearns. "They realized they need to have a political compromise and this may be it: doing a deal with Rwanda, inviting them back in."
Many people are skeptical though, including Stearns.
"Few believe the problems in the east are going be solved overnight," he said. "But there is no argument — this is a major milestone."
U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said Wednesday that U.N. forces south of Goma saw a battalion of Rwandan soldiers pass through the town of Sake in addition to the troops that came through Tuesday. Dietrich complained the government was refusing to let U.N. staff and other aid organizations cross checkpoints north of Goma toward Rutshsuru, where Rwandan troops were headed.
He also said Babacar Gaye, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping in Congo, met with Congolese military officials for a briefing on the situation and to discuss opening the roadblock north of Goma to U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies.
Nkunda a megalomaniac?
Rwanda has been under international pressure for months to use its influence over Tutsi rebels to end the conflict, and the breakthrough agreement may have been borne out of a split within Nkunda's movement that both Congo and Rwanda were quick to exploit.
Stearns said both Rwanda and Nkunda's own commanders had grown irritated by Nkunda, viewing him as a flippant, authoritarian megalomaniac who had allegedly embezzled money from rebel coffers. Nkunda could not be reached for comment.
Earlier this month, Nkunda's ex-chief of staff, Bosco Ntaganda, formed a splinter movement and last week announced his forces would work together with Congo's army to fight the Hutu militias and eventually integrate into the army.
Ntaganda may have turned on his former boss because he was afraid months of growing distrust might have prompted Nkunda to turn him over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is wanted for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers in the northern Ituri region five years ago.
No easy task
Though details of the agreement to allow Rwandan troops on Congo soil have not been made public, analysts speculate the government may have promised not to hand Ntaganda over for extradition in exchange for his cooperation.
If the deal works, Congo would get rid of the main Tutsi rebel movement and regain control of territories it lost. Rwanda would get rid of the Hutu militias who have given Rwanda a reason to invade twice.
But eradicating the Hutu militias will be no easy task. The Rwandan Hutus have been de facto allies of the Congo's army, and generally left alone. Kabila has promised actions against them before, but no operations materialized.
Today, the hardened militias control entire villages, operate checkpoints openly and are equipped with satellite phones, new uniforms and arms, witnesses say. And they know the terrain well: they have terrorized civilians for well over a decade and a half, and neither Rwanda, nor Congo, nor the U.N. peacekeeping force has been able to disarm them.