NAIROBI, 29 Sep 2005 (IRIN) - Some 400 Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who in September crossed from Sudan to the Garamba National Park in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the latest of several foreign groups which the government says must leave the country by Friday or face serious consequences.
"The logistics are in place if all the combatants were to decide to repatriate voluntarily," Emmanuel Gusu-wo, the assistant administrator for disarmament at the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), told IRIN on Wednesday. "The only thing missing are the combatants."
The government issued its ultimatum on 8 September.
Some foreign groups, such as Uganda's Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), have been in the Congo for years.
The largest and most troubling is the Rwandan Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu group, which has bases in the provinces of North and South Kivu. It opposes what it says is a Tusti-dominated government in Rwanda.
Scale of the FDLR Problem
MONUC puts the FDLR's strength at between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters, plus their dependents. Many of the FDLR's leaders are accused of having taken part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
"FDLR is a key source of regional instability," said Jim Terrie, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for military security in Africa. "[It] gives Kigali justification for continued interference in the Congo ... remains a menace to Congolese and Rwandan civilians and a potential tool with which hardliners in Kinshasa could sabotage the Congo's fragile peace process."
He said the majority of FDLR fighters would probably not repatriate voluntarily in part because there has been little incentive from the Rwandan and Congolese governments for them to do so.
The government in Kinshasa also lacks the military clout. "The Congolese army doesn't yet have the ability to sustain or even plan an operation against the FDLR," Terrie said.
In January, the African Union pledged to send 7,000 troops to help forcibly disarm the Rwandans but in June it issued a report saying up to 45,000 troops would be needed for the task. The force should expect to meet "a degree of resistance", the chairperson of the AU Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, said in the report.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Said Djinnit said in June that none of the 53 African countries that make up the AU had committed troops.
MONUC is supporting the army's efforts to disarm some armed groups in the country, says MONUC military spokesman Lt-Col Thierry Provendier. "In Ituri we have given ammunitions, in South Kivu, we are helping the army with planes and trucks."
However, he also said MONUC was not going to directly take part in forcibly disarming foreign armed groups "unless they attack the population. [Only then] is it in our mandate," he said.
Thousands of the FDLR combatants have repatriated voluntarily since 2002. Gusu-wo said MONUC had facilitated the return of 3,199 fighters and their 3,697 dependents.
In March, FDLR leaders declared they would end attacks against Rwanda and said they intended to return home. In response, Gusu-wo said, MONUC created three centres in North Kivu Province and three in South Kivu near their bases where the fighters could assemble for demobilisation.
However, Gusu-wo said, the results have been disappointing. "Since March only 60 to 70 FDLR combatants a month have been coming to the centres. That's not enough."
Only 81 FDLR combatants went to the centres in September after the government set the deadline for all foreign illegal combatants to leave. Terrie said the number of FDLR rebels repatriating appears to have "hit a plateau".
"Mostly only the top leaders are hardliners but they control the middle and lower ranks," he said.
Some leaders have attempted to split from the hardliners but with limited success. Recently, FDLR commander Seraphin Bizimungu, also known as Gen Amani, announced he led a group eager to repatriate but he has only mobilised 50 combatants.
"We need to see a mass defection," Terrie said. And that can only happen if the group's command structure is broken militarily, he said.
"The FDLR is not as cohesive as some people might think," he said. "You start by peeling off the outer groups like the Rastas and work your way towards the head of the problem." The Rastas are a recent offshoot of the FDLR, accused of attacking villages in South Kivu and committing numerous atrocities.
Terrie also said Rwanda needs to be more generous in providing incentives to the FDLR and the government in Kinshasa needs to show that it too is serious.
"There is murkiness around whether the FDLR still has some support from some in the government in Kinshasa as well as leaders of certain Mayi-Mayi militia groups," Terrie said.
Rwanda Hutu rebels became allies with the government of Laurent-Desire Kabila during the armed conflicts in the 1990s when the Tutsi-led Rwanda army invaded the east of the DRC.
"Whether or not the government is still arming the FDLR directly may be less important than indirect support," Terrie said. "The FDLR needs to get a clear message from Kinshasa that their relationship is over."
Other analysts remain sceptical even if the FDLR were to leave. According to William Church, managing director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, "If the Kinshasa government does not build state capacity and extend authority to the eastern DRC, the FDLR will be replaced by the Mayi-Mayi, newly, arrived militias, or, even worse, foreign terrorist.
Other illegal foreign combatants
So far, the government in Kinshasa and MONUC appear willing to take on the forcible repatriation of Ugandan rebels. MONUC estimates from 2004 indicate there are as few as 1,000 as well as their dependents, Gusu-wo said.
"Some of those are also from Sudan but most are from Uganda," he added.
MONUC disarmament officer Patrick Garba told IRIN on Wednesday that the government would now allow the Ugandan Amnesty Commission to set up an office in Beni in the Grand North region of North Kivu where APC/NALU has its bases.
On 9 September, the head of MONUC, William Swing, and senior government officials travelled to Beni to ask tradition leaders to convince the LRA to leave the Congo, Garba said.
"They also relayed information that a new army brigade would soon be deployed there," he said. "However, one of the traditional chiefs said that people in the area tolerate the presence of Ugandan rebels better than they would the army, which has previous looted and stolen from them."
According to Gusu-wo, 388 Ugandan combatants plus 239 dependents have returned to Uganda since 2003. Most were members of a rebel force led by Taban Amin, son of the former President Idi Amin, he said.
Also 3,605 Burundian combatants and 3,124 of their dependents had returned home by March 2004, he said.
Another armed group in the DRC is the Mbororo nomads from Chad and south Sudan who are reportedly occupying the Garamba National Park along with the LRA.
"But their presence is not as significant as the [newly arrived Uganda] LRA," said Lt-Col Provendier.
The Congolese vice-president in charge of security and defence, Azarias Ruberwa, said on Monday the army was planning operations to oust the 400 LRA, who are led by deputy commander Vincent Otti.
"We have no choice, we absolutely have to disarm them," he said.