Top UN official in Congo welcomes 2-week truce in the east, where violence is at ‘alarming levels’

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The top U.N. official in Congo on Monday welcomed a two-week humanitarian cease-fire in its mineral-rich east, where she said violence has reached “alarming levels” and risked provoking a wider regional conflict.

Special envoy Bintou Keita wouldn’t say whether the truce that began last Friday was holding. But she told reporters, “My hope, and I think the hope of each and every one, is for the truce to be continuing in a cessation of hostilities — forever.”

Keita told the U.N. Security Council, however, that she was extremely concerned at the rapid expansion of attacks by the M23 rebel group and its capture of several strategic locations in eastern North Kivu in the last two weeks, and the spillover into neighboring South Kivu. This took place despite numerous operations conducted by the Congolese army supported by U.N. peacekeepers and southern Africa forces, she said.

Keita said that as U.N. experts have documented, “the government of Rwanda has reinforced its support to the M23, enabling it to make major territorial gains” across eastern Congo, threatening “the very real risk of provoking a wider regional conflict.”

In addition to the M23 crisis, she also sharply criticized a spate of “horrific attacks” by the Allied Democratic Forces, Zaire, and CODECO armed groups in nearby Ituri province which have caused almost 300 deaths and injuries. Further south, she said, the ADF, who have ties to the Islamic State extremist group, has also entered Lubero territory in North Kivu on several occasions, killing “an unprecedented number of civilians,” including more than 90 between June 4 and June 7.

Eastern Congo has struggled with armed violence as more than 120 groups fight for power, land and valuable mineral resources, while others try to defend their communities. Some armed groups have been accused of mass killings.

Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi, along with U.S. and U.N. experts, accuse neighboring Rwanda of giving military backing to M23. Rwanda denies the claim, but in February it effectively admitted that it has troops and missile systems in eastern Congo to safeguard its security, pointing to a buildup of Congolese forces near the border.

U.S. deputy ambassador Stephanie Sullivan told the council “It is irresponsible for Rwanda, as a major troop contributing country to U.N. peacekeeping, to tolerate such behavior by M23.”

Expressing alarm at the rapid escalation of the conflict in eastern Congo, she said, “Rwanda’s military interventions and operations in North Kivu have extended beyond mere support for M23 operations to direct and decisive involvement, allowing Rwandan troops and M23 to achieve military dominance across large swaths of North Kivu and greatly increase their territorial expansion.”

Sullivan said more than 4,000 Rwandan troops are in Congolese territory and they have committed attacks killing civilians who need protection.

Keita said 7.3 million Congolese are displaced, including 6.9 million in the eastern provinces. Sullivan called for the removal of artillery and heavy weapons from the vicinity of camps in the east for those who have been displaced.

Rwanda and Congo “must urgently take steps to de-escalate, fully commit to regional diplomatic processes, and work to hold accountable all actors responsible for human rights abuses — steps which represent the only hope for peace,” the U.S. envoy said.

Sullivan commended the parties in eastern Congo for committing to the two-week truce, which the United States and Angola helped reach.

The United States will cooperate with Angola “to monitor and verify it,” she said.

With no sign yet that the truce is holding, the Congolese and Rwandan ambassadors again went after each other at the council meeting.

Congolese Ambassador Zenon Ngay Mukongo hailed “the initiative of the United States that has led to a humanitarian truce, offering a respite to the civilian population that is bearing the full brunt of the Rwanda aggression.”

But he said “the much-deserved cessation of hostilities and de-escalation will not be possible as long as Rwanda and its M23 allies continue to fan the flames of the conflict.”

Mukongo said the Security Council must demand the unconditional withdrawal of Rwandan troops from Congolese territory or face an arms embargo until it ceases its support for the M23 rebels, and it should sanction the Rwandan authorities’ involvement in the illegal exploitation of Congo’s natural resources.

“The Democratic Republic of the Congo will defend its territorial integrity, its sovereignty and the security of its people at all costs while remaining open to a political settlement of the conflict with Rwanda through diplomatic channels,” Mukongo said. “However, that path will only be credible if Rwandan troops effectively withdraw from Congolese territory in order to allow for Frank and constructive dialogue.”

Rwandan Ambassador Ernest Rwamucyo, whose country’s leader is a Tutsi, retorted that Congo and the international community have failed to ensure the protection of Congolese citizens, especially Congolese Tutsis, who he claimed “are being ethnically cleansed by armed groups.”

He also reiterated that the FDLR rebel group, which he said is supported by Congo’s highest authorities and has vowed to cause regime change in Rwanda, remains “a threat to Rwanda and the Great Lakes region.”

Rwamucyo again expressed support for regional initiatives which focus on political solutions and the need “to permanently address the issues of the FDLR by disarming, demobilizing and repatriating them to Rwanda.”


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