Rebels draw first blood in the battle for Congo

Death of UN soldier deepens military crisis along border with Rwanda

The United Nations’ controversial “intervention brigade”, a force with an unprecedented mandate to go on the offensive against rebels in the Eastern Congo, has suffered its first casualties amid escalating fighting in the area. At least one UN soldier from Tanzania has been killed and three South Africans wounded as the blue helmets fought alongside the Congolese army against the M23 rebel group.

A week of fierce clashes near the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, which has been accused of supporting M23, now threatens to boil over into an open conflict between the two states.

An unknown number of rebel fighters and Congolese government soldiers have been killed during an offensive aimed at driving the M23 away from Goma, the regional aid and trading hub of Eastern Congo.

Two civilians were killed on the Rwandan side of the border today after artillery shells landed in the frontier town of Gisenyi. Rwanda warned on Wednesday that any further shelling of its territory would be tantamount to crossing a “red line” and that it would be forced to intervene.

Unconfirmed reports suggested that some units from the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) today crossed the border into Eastern Congo. Rwandan troops have regularly clashed with Congolese forces along the border in recent years but the prospect of direct fighting between the UN brigade and the RDF would mark a major escalation of the conflict. Such a conflict was described by one diplomat as a “doomsday scenario” with the potential to trigger a war that could pull in several nations.

The M23, whose leadership hails from the Tutsis, the same ethnic group as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, briefly occupied Goma last November, humiliating Congolese forces and UN peacekeepers tasked with guarding the city. The UN Security Council responded by calling for a 3,000-strong intervention force with a mandate to neutralise armed groups in the area.

South Africa and Tanzania have provided the bulk of the force and Malawian soldiers are due to join them shortly. The UN force will also be provided with attack helicopters and intelligence-gathering drones to monitor movements across the borders between the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.

Rwanda has denied supporting the M23 – soldiers who launched a mutiny last year to protest broken promises made during a peace deal in 2009 – but a UN group of experts has published a dossier of evidence detailing Kigali’s involvement with the rebels. A number of Western governments, including the UK, froze aid payments to Rwanda in response to the allegations of meddling in its much larger neighbour. Both Rwanda and the M23 have accused the UN of taking sides in the conflict and pointed to the continued presence of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an ethnic Hutu-led group operating in Eastern Congo.

Conversely the UN has been accused of inaction inside Congo, and protests in Goma over the weekend, calling for the intervention brigade to attack the M23, turned violent and two demonstrators were shot dead. The UN has launched an inquiry into the killings, while Uruguay, which provides some of the peacekeepers stationed in Goma, has denied claims that its troops opened fire on protesters.

Eastern Congo, which has great mineral wealth, has been the cradle of near-constant conflict since the last Congolese war. Rwanda has sought an area of influence in Congo’s eastern Kivu provinces, partly to protect the large Rwandaphone minority but also because Tutsi military commanders have established control over lucrative mining, timber and farming operations.

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