KINSHASA Democratic Republic of Congo said on Friday it wants the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country strengthened so it can eliminate rebel groups in its lawless east, as called for by regional leaders seeking to end cycles of conflict.
The statement came after Britain joined the United States and the Netherlands as donors who have cut or suspended aid to Rwanda in the wake of a U.N. report that Kigali is backing rebels in fighting that has displaced 470,000 since April.
Rwanda has rejected the report, saying donors were acting on "flimsy evidence".
As part of efforts to diffuse tension between Kinshasa and Kigali, veteran foes during years of conflict in Congo, regional leaders brokered a deal for a "neutral force" to be set up to take on Congo-based rebel groups.
No details have been given on the plan but, in theory, the force would target all rebels, including the anti-Kinshasa M23 rebels and Rwandan Hutu FDLR fighters Kigali says are a threat.
The fighting in North Kivu province comes after three years of generally improved relations between Congo and its tiny but militarily powerful neighbor, which has said previous military actions in Congo were justified by the threat posed by Rwandan Hutu rebels who have been based there since a 1994 genocide.
"We know very well that if we start from scratch it will take a very long time, that's why we're suggesting the solution of transforming parts of MONUSCO," said Lambert Mende, a spokesman for Congo's government, referring to the U.N. mission.
"We think it will work because we have got the support of everyone (at the African Union) in Addis Ababa, and we are witnessing the pressure that is being put on Rwanda by its allies," he said, referring to aid cuts by Kigali's donors.
The U.N. already has more than 17,000 troops in Congo as part of its peacekeeping mission. But the force is stretched thin across a nation the size of Western Europe and struggles to fulfill its mandate of protecting civilians as it is.
U.N. helicopter gunships frequently back up outgunned government forces but even that firepower failed to prevent rebels from taking several towns this week.
Regional leaders are due to meet in Uganda next month to flesh out the plan but a Western diplomat based in Kinshasa said details were still scarce.
"Whilst people come to a conclusion as to what to do, the conflict is continuing," he said.
Days of fighting north of the North Kivu capital of Goma have this week forced thousands more from their homes.
UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, said its staff in Congo and working with refugees in Rwanda and Uganda were receiving regular reports of widespread abuses, including indiscriminate killings, rapes, torture and ethnic violence.
"In Uganda, some of the young Congolese refugees arriving at the Nyakabande transit center near the border told our staff they were fleeing a recruitment campaign," UNHCR said.
"Many report seeing young males and minors being forced to join the rebels to carry ammunition," it said.
GROWING AID FREEZE
Britain's Department for International Development (Dfid) said that it had delayed a 16 million pound ($25 million) payment, the first of two scheduled for this year, as London considers whether "partnership principles" were still being met.
The move follows the Dutch suspension of 5 million euros ($6.18 million) in aid and the U.S., a staunch ally of Rwanda's, cutting $200,000 of military aid due to the U.N. report.
Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo issued a fresh rejection of the accusations, saying they were part of an orchestrated media and political campaign against Kigali.
"We have just concluded discussions with the (U.N.) Group of Experts and comprehensively rebutted every one of the allegations with conclusive documentary evidence," she said.
Analysts say moves by donors to suspend aid, however small in value, are significant signs that patience were Kigali's reported meddling in Congo is running thin.
(Additional reporting by Jenny Clover in Kigali and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing and additional reporting by David Lewis in Nairobi; Editing by Louise Ireland)