GOMA, 15 January 2008 (IRIN) - A senior government official in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has claimed that about 30 percent of members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which has been active in eastern DRC for more than a decade, were actually Congolese citizens, and called on them to hand over their weapons before a forcible disarmament operation in mid-March.
Photo: Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
Soldiers loyal to dissident general Laurent Nkunda man a checkpoint
"Some Congolese children have been conscripted - we have a duty to implement this plan [disarmament] because 30 percent of the 6,000 FDLR members are our children," Seraphin Ngwej, roving ambassador for the DRC President Joseph Kabila, told a peace conference convened in the town of Goma to discuss ways of ending conflict in the troubled North and South Kivu provinces in the east of the country.
"These forces [FDLR) must return to their country despite the lack of consultation with the government in Kigali," said Ngwej.
Collectively known as FDLR, a variety of armed Hutu groups, many of them remnants of the militias that carried out much of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, has been based in eastern DRC for almost 14 years. DRC government forces have said they will start forcibly disarming them from mid-March if they fail to hand over their weapons willingly.
A DRC analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "It is clear that a fairly large percentage are Congolese. Whatever the figure, the point is that it's really impossible to know who is 'Rwandan' and who is 'Congolese': even the ones who came over from Rwanda now have Congolese names, speak local languages, have often married Congolese etc."
Another added: "I see no reason why even presumed 'Rwandan' FDLR [ones not sought by Rwanda to be tried for genocide] should not be able to opt to stay in DRC, on condition that they disarm and agree to live as law-abiding citizens. They already have their lives there and DRC is big enough to accommodate them."
The FDLR presence has been a chronic source of instability in the region. Over the past four years, renegade general Laurent Nkunda has justified his rebellion by citing the need to protect Tutsis living in eastern DRC from attack by the FDLR. Since late 2006, fighting involving government forces, Nkunda's troops, the FDLR and DRC militia groups, has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Twice, in 1996 and 1998, Rwanda deployed troops in eastern DRC, saying the Rwandan Hutu fighters there were a threat to its national security. The second invasion escalated into a major war that drew in more than half a dozen countries.
FDLR fighters have been accused of committing atrocities, including murder, rape and looting, against the DRC's civilian population.
Ngwej said the government on 1 January launched a public campaign to encourage members of the FDLR to disarm and volunteer for repatriation to Rwanda. Volunteers would be accommodated in camps managed by the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC), he added, and members of FDLR suspected of having committed crimes would be brought to justice. "After mid-March, military operations with a view to forcible disarmament will begin," said Ngwej.
"The government has decided to settle this nagging issue that has always tended to bring down all efforts by our country," he said.