The United States said Monday that it had sent a top official to Congo and Rwanda in an effort to stop border tensions from flaring into a new conflict.
Rwanda accused Congo of hostile action in building up troops near the border between the two African states, but Kinshasa said fears of a new war in the region were unfounded.
Diplomats and military sources in Kinshasa said as many as 10,000 government troops had flown to eastern Congo over the past week, a deployment that U.N. officials described as unprecedented.
Brenda Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said the diplomatic mission would be led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto.
“We are deeply concerned about the build-up of forces in eastern Congo,” Greenberg said. “We call upon all parties involved...to refrain from any act which might exacerbate tension or heighten the risk of further conflict in the area.”
The Democratic Republic of the Congo said the troop deployment was part of an attempt to integrate former foes into a cohesive national army after years of war in the vast state, whose mineral riches include coltan, a rare mineral used to make laptop computers and mobile telephones.
Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Ondekane denied that Congo was preparing for conflict with its neighbor, but Col. Patrick Karegeya, a spokesman for the Rwandan army, said: “From this side of the border, it is a hostile action. We look at it in the historical context of the region.”
The troop movements near the Ugandan and Rwandan borders followed a week-long insurgency in the strategic eastern town of Bukavu this month. Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, said the uprising was backed by Rwanda, which denied involvement.
Rwanda has twice invaded Congo, in 1996 and 1998, backing Congolese rebels to hunt down Hutu extremists. Rwanda says they were responsible for the 1994 genocide in its country and posed a threat to its borders.
Both Rwandan invasions sparked wider wars, and diplomats say some in Kinshasa fear another such attack. Congo is just emerging from the last five-year conflict which, at its height, involved six neighboring nations and killed three million people, mostly from hunger and disease.
U.N. patrol attacked
The United Nations has sent more than 10,000 peacekeepers in Congo to police a fragile peace process. A U.N. military patrol near the border town of Kamanyola, just south of Bukavu, came under attack Sunday afternoon.
“We had a patrol on the ground and in the air near Kamanyola. They were fired upon, and the support helicopter fired 14 rockets in response,” U.N. military spokesman Major Abou Thiam said. He said he had no reports of casualties.
Karegeya denied that Rwanda was massing troops along the border in response to the Congolese deployment but said Kigali was concerned about the situation in eastern Congo.
“We’ve seen increased cooperation between Interahamwe [Hutu extremists] and government troops over the past few weeks,” Karegeya said, alleging that the Kinshasa government had rearmed and equipped the Interahamwe with satellite telephones.
“We’re waiting to see what happens next, but the situation does not hold well for the peace process in the Great Lakes region and especially in Congo.”
Conflict between rebels and loyalists in the east and the renewed hostility with Rwanda have underscored the vulnerability of Kabila’s transition government, which must organize elections in the next year.
Tensions within the military are also high. Three top army officials were suspended Sunday, a week after security forces defeated an apparent coup attempt in Kinshasa by dissidents in Kabila’s personal guard.