The military governor of DRC's North Kivu province accuses the Rwandan army of occupying the city of Bunagana.
On Monday, regional authorities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accused the Rwandan army of invading and occupying Bunagana, a key strategic town bordering Uganda, amid a diplomatic tug of war between the two Central African countries, provoked and fueled by the recent offensives of the March 23 Movement (M23).
According to Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, spokesman for the military governor of DRC's northeastern North Kivu province, where heavy fighting between the army and M23 rebels has intensified since April, the provincial government accuses the Rwandan army of "violating our frontier intangibility and territorial integrity by occupying Bunagana on Monday at around 7 a.m."
There was no immediate comment from Rwanda on the latest accusations. Yet the Rwanda Defense Force (RDF) said Tuesday that the defense and security of the Rwandan population, as well as Rwanda's territorial integrity, is assured.
Tensions between the two countries intensified last month after DRC accused Rwanda of supporting M23 rebels in renewed fighting in the country's northeastern North Kivu province. Rwanda has denied the charge and instead accused the Congolese army of allying with Rwandan rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), active in eastern DRC, whose elements are blamed for the 1994 genocide against Tutsi.
Tuesday's army reassurance came on the back of counter accusations of shelling rockets into the shared border. Last Friday, Rwanda accused the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (FARDC) of firing rockets into Rwanda. DRC also said a rocket fired from Rwanda had killed two children.
The provincial statement comes hours after the M23 claimed to have occupied Bunagana, a key transit point for goods on the Ugandan border, which had fallen in the hands of the rebels in 2013. Major Willy Ngoma, spokesman for the M23, stressed that the capture of this city is not a premeditated act by the organization.
"Faced with the deliberate and repeated harassment suffered by our troops on the part of this negative coalition with the use of long-range cannons fired from Bunagana, terrorizing the civilian population and forcing thousands of inhabitants of this region, we have decided to take control of Bunagana city to silence the said threat and thus encourage the population to return to their homes," he said.
On the same occasion, the M23, which reaffirms its commitment to pursue the search for a response to its demands by peaceful means, calls on Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi to seize the opportunity to put an end to the violence and to open the direct negotiations. However, Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, on behalf of North Kivu's military government, pointed the finger at Rwanda, which has been accused of supporting the M23 rebels.
Violence in eastern DR #Congo is having a devastating impact on children. Forced to flee their homes in search of safety, displaced families live in a dire situation without access to basic services and children miss out on education. pic.twitter.com/GLuzVstYsd— UNICEF en RDC (@UNICEFDRC) June 14, 2022
"After seeing huge setbacks suffered by their proteges on the pitch, the Rwanda Defense Forces have, this time and in the open, decided to violate the intangibility of our border and the integrity of our territory by occupying the border town of Bunagana this Monday", said the spokesman, accusing the Rwandan army of "neither more nor less an invasion".
Stemming from a former Congolese rebellion, the M23, created in April 2012, quickly gained international notoriety when it occupied the city of Goma, capital of North Kivu, for ten days in November 2012. This occupation followed eight months of intense fighting in Rutshuru territory. Although the rebels withdrew from Goma after coming under heavy international pressure, they continued to control key strategic sites, such as the border town of Bunagana.
After its defeat by the army in 2013, the M23 signed a peace accord with the government in December 2013, in which it agreed to demobilize its fighters and transform itself into a political party. However, under the leadership of Commander Sultani Makenga, parts of the group returned to the DRC at the end of 2016, accusing the Kinshasa authorities of not having respected commitments on the demobilization of its combatants.
Late Sunday, North Kivu's governor said that M23's offensive on Sunday was supported by the Rwandan army, accusing Rwanda of seeking to occupy Bunagana. The relations between Kinshasa and Kigali, which have seen signs of thawing under the current administrations, are now undergoing a diplomatic tug of war, provoked and fueled by the recent offensives by the deemed M23 "terrorists".
DRC on Thursday accused Rwanda of sending 500 commandos in disguise into its territory. The two countries on Friday accused each other of firing rockets across their shared border. It is already an open secret that Kinshasa has been upset about Kigali's alleged support of M23, as Kigali, while denying all allegations of backing M23, also accused the Congolese army of supporting the FDLR remnants, responsible for the 1994 genocide.
The two neighboring countries share complicated and tangled relations since the tragedic genocide in 1994, as Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide arrived in eastern DRC.
However, besides all the tiffs and tit-for-tat, the two countries have also counted on regional mediation and possibly a tete-a-tete between the two presidents in Angola, attempting to bury the hatches and restore the fragile peace in eastern DRC.
But to this day, the meeting is still pending as neither of the two countries has yet confirmed or announced any detail of the rendezvous.
Hundreds of people fleeing the fighting are crossing into the Ugandan border district of Kisoro, a relief agency said on Monday. Irene Nakasiita, a spokesperson of the Uganda Red Cross Society, told reporters that there is an ongoing validation exercise to ascertain the exact number of people, but the estimate is in the hundreds.
According to the United Nations, thousands of residents of Bunagana, including around 5,000 displaced persons and returnees living there, fled to neighboring Uganda due to clashes between the Congolese army and M23 fighters on Sunday. Over 25,000 people were reportedly forced to flee their villages again to churches, schools, and other makeshift shelters in Kabindi, Rwanguba, and Kinoni, in the Rwanguba health zone.
The resumption of clashes around Bunagana affected humanitarian activities, which resumed in this area ten days ago, warned the UN. With traffic disrupted on the road linking Burayi to Bunagana, where thousands of displaced persons and returnees have been waiting for assistance since the violence began in March, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was forced to cancel an mission scheduled on Monday.
As the situation still remains highly volatile, an escalation of violence in Rutshuru territory could lead to continued displacement, worsening an already precarious humanitarian situation.
The UN on Saturday voiced concern over the deteriorating security situation in the eastern DRC, calling on local armed groups to lay down their arms and encouraging the reconciliation between Kinshasa and Rwanda under the mediation of Angolan President Joao Lourenco.
"We also welcome the nomination of President Joao Lourenco of Angola by the African Union to defuse tensions between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The UN fully supports these political efforts," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, noting that the UN supports ongoing national and regional political efforts to accompany the disarmament of armed groups, including the Nairobi process launched by the DRC and Kenya.