Congo intends to send up to 10,000 reinforcements toward its eastern border with Rwanda, a presidential spokesman said Monday, after credible reports that thousands of Rwandan troops crossed into its territory, raising fears of reigniting a devastating five-year regional war.
A Western diplomat told The Associated Press Monday that thousands of Rwandan troops moved into the remote forested hills of east Congo — an account supported by park rangers and local chiefs near the border of the two neighbors and wartime enemies.
Rwanda refused to confirm or deny the reported incursion, and the U.N. mission in Congo said U.N. helicopter patrols and other sorties had failed to turn up any immediate sign of Rwandan troops.
The reports of a Rwandan incursion come just days after Rwanda threatened to send its forces into eastern Congo to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels. Rwanda argued that a 5-month-old U.N.-led disarmament campaign there had failed to act aggressively enough.
In Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, President Joseph Kabila told international diplomats he would send reinforcements toward the border to “assure the security of the civilian population and to contain the Rwandan aggression,” presidential spokesman Kudura Kasango said.
Official: Rwandan forces fought Congolese earlier
Kasango and other Congolese authorities said they had received no official report of any Rwandan incursion.
But an official close to Congo’s military chief of staff said on condition of anonymity that Rwandan forces had clashed with Congolese fighters in Congo five days earlier.
The Western diplomat, however, citing his embassy’s own sources, said “it is certain” that thousands of Rwandan forces had moved into territory north of Congo’s main eastern city, Goma, since Friday.
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited what he said were accounts to his embassy from its workers and from aid groups.
No clashes between Congolese and Rwandan forces had been reported, he said.
A ranger at Virunga national park bordering Rwanda and Congo told the AP he saw about 400 armed Rwanda troops cross into the park Sunday.
The troops were well-armed and traveled in a sport utility vehicle and on foot, the ranger said on condition of anonymity, adding they appeared to be heading north to remote volcanic mountains north of Goma.
Rwandan troops sighted
The area is believed to hold some of the estimated 8,000-10,000 Rwandan Hutu rebels still in Congo.
In Goma, local chiefs also said their people reported seeing Rwandan troops in isolated hills since Friday.
In Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Rwandan special envoy Richard Sezibera said he would neither confirm nor deny that Rwandan troops have entered Congo. Sezibera said the Rwandan government would “do whatever is necessary to protect Rwanda’s borders and people.”
The Rwandan envoy specified the Rwandan Hutu rebels were “in the area” of the reported Rwandan incursions, including Virunga National Park and the small town of Rutshuru.
When asked directly about the reports coming from eastern Congo, he said: “I will not comment about rumors, reported sightings, innuendo, timelines or projections.”
U.N.: ‘It's a rumor’
Jacqueline Chenard, a spokeswoman for the U.N. force in east Congo, said U.N. helicopter missions and other patrols had not detected any Rwandan troops in the area.
“To our knowledge, there’s no Rwandan presence,” Chenard said in Goma. “It’s a rumor.”
The United Nations has 11,000 troops in Congo, overseeing peace and power-sharing deals that mandated the withdrawal of foreign armies.
The force is building to 16,000 as the United Nations steps up disarmament efforts of Rwandan Hutu rebels and other militias in the east.
Some other Western diplomats in Congo’s capital said they had no confirmation that Rwandan troops had entered.
Kabila meets with U.N.
Kabila met Monday with ambassadors of U.N. Security Council nations and leading African nations, Kasango confirmed. Kabila informed them he would send troops to North Kivu province. The province, with Goma as its capital, encompasses the areas of the alleged incursions.
Rwanda has invaded Congo twice since 1996 on the grounds of flushing out Rwandan Hutu rebels responsible for the 1994 genocide of a half-million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the nation.
Rwanda’s second Congo invasion, in 1998, touched off a five-year war that drew in the armies of four other foreign nations and split resource-rich Congo. An estimated 3.2 million people died in the Rwanda-controlled east alone, most through famine and disease.