The United Nations has again accused Rwanda of offering support to the M23 rebel group that is fighting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government.
A new UN Group of Experts report on the DRC, claims that Rwanda is supporting the M23 through troop reinforcement, equipment and command, and names at least five active top commanders of the Rwanda Defence Forces as coordinators.
The June 13, 2023 report to the president of the UN Security Council warns that the deteriorating relations between Kinshasa and Kigali pose a security threat in the region.
In March this year, DRC claimed that Rwanda had sent reinforcements in the form of troops and equipment to the M23 in DRC.
While Kigali denies this, including in response to information requests from the UN experts who authored this report, both the European Union and the US have called on Rwanda to stop aiding the UN-sanctioned rebel group.
According to the report, episodes of intense violence have affected the three provinces of the eastern DRC South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri brought about by clashes between M23 and the Congolese Army (FARDC), with both sides accusing each other of violating successive ceasefire agreements.
“Despite bilateral, regional, and international efforts to de-escalate the crisis related to the ‘Mouvement du 23 mars’ (M23), the sanctioned armed group continued to significantly expand its territory and increase attacks,” the report says.
Kigali, while dismissing the UN report as based on “questionable evidence and unreliable sources” was quick to acknowledge a part of it that “confirms the serious threat represented by the Kinshasa-backed genocidal militia FLDR, and their newly increased capacity to threaten Rwanda’s security.”
The Government Communications Office noted how the details the financial support, weapons and political cover provided to the FDLR by the Government of the DR Congo and confirms that, “along with other illegal armed forces, the FDLR is fighting alongside the Congolese armed forces (FARDC), which has on multiple occasions in the past year violated Rwandan territory.”
Rwanda’s responses to accusations against the Rwanda Defence Force do not appear in the report. The sources used by the UNGoE include the DRC Government, former combatants, anti-Rwanda Congolese civil society campaigners, and current members of illegal armed groups including elements of the so-called “Wazalendo”, a coalition of illegal armed groups allied to FARDC.
In addition, the UNGoE report ignores ongoing regional peace efforts, in which the United Nations is playing a supporting role and fails to mention the well-documented efforts by the DRC to frustrate the Nairobi and Luanda processes, including the work of the EAC Regional Force deployed in Eastern DRC.
Also ignored are the multiple violations against Rwanda’s territorial integrity, and the DRC’s pursuit of the path of an all-out war.
“The report deliberately minimises the threat of ethnic cleansing of Congolese Tutsi communities, and shockingly blames the targeted communities for causing their own suffering.”
“This contradicts reports by the UN and other organizations and mirrors the rhetoric of genocide deniers and ideologues. It also contradicts the testimonies of thousands of Congolese refugees who over the last two decades have been forced to flee to countries in the region, including Rwanda,” the Spokesperson said.
Rwanda also accuses DRC of hiring mercenaries. President Paul Kagame early this year said Congo’s situation was getting worse after the recruitment of mercenaries in preparation for war, although President Tshisekedi dismissed the allegations as baseless.
Instead, the government said they have experts. “If we get Sukhoi aircraft (Russian fighter planes), we need the technical personnel to maintain them. If we do not have that manpower, what do we do?” said DR Congo Government Spokesman Patrick Muyaya.
But the UN report cited the presence of Romanians, Bulgarians, Georgians, and Belorussians.
The presence of Caucasian, armed men in Goma, a few kilometres from the frontline, sparked rumours that Russian mercenaries were already in town.
Private military forces
“The period under review was characterised by the militarisation of Goma town and the Sake area, as well as by the presence of multiple uniformed actors – FARDC supported by armed groups, Monusco peacekeepers, the EAC Regional Force and private military companies deployed to, among other aims, stop the territorial conquest by M23 and ease the military pressure on Goma town.”
“… The planning and support of private military companies to those FARDC operations, including from companies Agemira RDC and Congo Protection, has regularly been denounced by M23, which has claimed that the Government of DR Congo worked with mercenaries,” says the UN report.
After several attempts for talks and a ceasefire, the late last year M23 agreed to withdraw from areas it was occupying to facilitate the talks.
The UN also accuses the M23 of attempts to win allies in South Kivu, in particular the armed group Twirwaneho, to open a front in South Kivu.
The variety of M23 military equipment, some produced recently, provided insight into the significant firepower of the armed group which attested to violations of the arms embargo in DRC.
“The Group of Experts obtained further evidence of direct interventions by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) on DRC territory, either to reinforce M23 combatants or to conduct military operations against the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and local armed groups. The Group identified several RDF commanders and officials coordinating RDF operations in the DR Congo,” the UN said.
The UN also alleges that M23, who have recently acquired new uniforms and advanced weaponry, could have received them from the RDF.
These include various types of assault rifles, heavy and light machine guns, various types of rocket-propelled grenade launchers, rockets, grenade launchers and grenades, recoilless guns, mortar shells, and boxes of ammunition, all either recovered or documented in areas that both the RDF and M23 operate.
Some of this military equipment, the report says, was produced recently and thus could not belong to the older M23 stockpiles. The experts said they obtained further evidence – including documentary and photographic evidence and aerial footage – of military operations by soldiers in RDF uniform in Rutshuru, Masisi, and Nyiragongo territories between November 2022 and March 2023.
Deployed RDF troops, the UN says, included members of the 201st and 301st brigades, 59 as well as members of the RDF Special Forces, commanded by a captain, who were deployed for specific operations from May 2022 onward.
On the ground, operations by RDF, including those by RDF special and reserve forces, were coordinated by a brigadier-general.
A major-general who commanded several RDF operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo territory in 2022, was recalled to Kigali and replaced.
The North Kivu operations were designed and coordinated by a general who is a presidential defence and security adviser.
Quoting sources, including two RDF intelligence personnel, the UN said that the objective of the RDF military actions on DRC territory, labelled “North Kivu operations” was to reinforce M23 by providing troops and material and to use them to secure control over mine sites, gain political influence in the DRC and decimate the FDLR.
Over time, Rwanda has blamed DRC for siding with FDLR to exterminate Congolese Tutsi and threatening Kigali’s territorial integrity.
Local armed groups and FDLR created the “Congolese Patriotic Resistants” network, which fought M23 alongside FARDC coordinated by senior FARDC officers, who supported the armed groups with logistics, military equipment, and financing.
The hostilities triggered by the territorial expansion of M23 continued, stoking xenophobia and hate speech and accentuating ethnic rifts between the warring sides.
Hateful and belligerent rhetoric, intended to vilify Rwandophone populations perceived to support M23, continued to be propagated by political figures, civil society actors, local populists, activists, and members of the Congolese diaspora and was widely amplified on social media.