Rebel Leader General Laurent Nkunda
Nkunda was seized last night in neighboring Rwanda after he sent three battalions to repel an advance by a joint Congolese- Rwandan force, Captain Olivier Hamuli, a military spokesman, said by phone today from Goma, capital of Congo’s North Kivu province.
Nkunda’s capture was probably part of a deal between Congo and Rwanda that included permitting Rwandan forces into Congo, said Jason Stearns, an independent analyst.
The arrest took place while Nkunda was “on the run in Rwandan territory after having resisted our soldiers in Bunagana,” Hamuli said.
Bunagana is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Goma.
Nkunda, who was ousted as leader of the National Congress for the Defense of the People earlier this month, says he’s fighting to protect the region’s ethnic Tutsi minority from Hutu militias that took refuge in Congo after participating in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
War in the region has caused more than 5 million deaths since 1998.
The conflict has simmered since 1996, when the Tutsi-led government of neighboring Rwanda colluded with Congolese rebels as they pursued Hutu militias accused of killing 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in the genocide.
The Hutu militias, now known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, still threaten Congo’s Tutsi minority, the CNDP says.
Rwandan troops this week entered Congo after being invited by the Congolese government to help disarm the FDLR.
‘Barrier’ to Operations Rwandan army spokesman Major Jill Rutaremara said Nkunda was “a barrier to ongoing operations” in east Congo, adding that “several” FDLR members have also been arrested during the joint operations.
“Rwanda does not support people who oppose the Congolese government, because they are trying to destabilize the country,” Rutaremara said in a phone interview. “Also, Nkunda was in the country illegally.”
The CNDP routed Congo’s army in three months of clashes late last year, displacing more than 250,000 people in North Kivu. CNDP military chief General Jean Bosco Ntaganda on Jan. 5 said he’d overthrown Nkunda, whom he described as an obstacle to peace. Under Bosco’s leadership, the CNDP last week said it would join the quest to disarm the FDLR.
“Nkunda’s arrest does not necessarily spell the end of the CNDP, that depends on what compromise can be found with Bosco and the remaining leaders,” said Stearns, a former senior researcher at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
“And even if his movement is disbanded, there are many underlying issues that must be addressed, including land reform and ethnic antagonisms, in order to consolidate peace in the region,” Stearns said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Nkunda, in a Nov. 13 interview, threatened to seize Goma after his forces advanced to within 10 kilometers of the city. Capturing Goma would be the first step toward toppling the government of President Joseph Kabila, he said.
“Nkunda had grown too big for his shoes,” Stearns said. “Many people in the movement had gotten weary of his idiosyncrasies and his mismanagement.”
Nkunda will be handed over to Congo today, North Kivu’s army chief General Vainqueur Mayala said. It hasn’t been decided what will happen to Nkunda next, Mayala said by phone from Goma.
Congo is Africa’s biggest tin producer, three-quarters of which is exported from Goma.
The United Nations Mission in Congo, or Monuc, has about 16,500 soldiers in Congo. The peacekeeping force, the world’s biggest, is spread across a country the size of Western Europe. UN military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said he wasn’t able to comment on Nkunda’s arrest “at this point.”
Rwanda has previously supported the CNDP, according a December report by UN investigators. Rwanda rejects the charges. Its Tutsi-led regime last year accused Congo of collaborating with the FDLR’s 7,000 fighters, which the UN report also found evidence of.
Congo, which denies the charges, in December reaffirmed a commitment to pursue the rebels with Rwandan help, paving the way for this week’s Rwandan arrivals.
The UN and human rights campaigners accuse Nkunda’s CNDP of war crimes, including the killing of at least 50 civilians in Kiwanja, 74 kilometers north of Goma, in November. Nkunda denies the charges.
At least 4,000 Rwandan soldiers crossed into Congo this week and have advanced towards FDLR-held areas, according to Monuc’s Dietrich.
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