DAKAR (Reuters) - Rwanda and Congo have announced the arrest in Rwandan territory of Congolese Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda during a joint anti-rebel operation.
Over the last five years, Nkunda headed an eastern Congolese rebel movement the government has long accused Rwanda of supporting. His arrest appears to be tangible proof of a radical improvement in relations between the two neighbors.
The arrest took place after Kinshasa allowed Rwanda to send its army into Congo this week to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels who have been at the heart of much of the violence in Africa’s Great Lakes and served as a pretext for Nkunda’s rebellion.
Here are some scenarios of what this could mean for Congo and the region:
Nkunda is currently being held by the Rwandan authorities but Kinshasa has asked for his extradition to Congo. Nkunda and his fighters have been accused of numerous war crimes. Although analysts say the International Criminal Court has opened investigations into Nkunda, no formal warrant has been issued.
United Nations investigators last year published a report detailing the extent of support Nkunda’s rebellion received from senior Rwandan authorities. This piled pressure on Rwanda and some believe Kigali fears Nkunda might further divulge the extent of their previous collaboration if he appeared in court.
Nkunda’s position as leader of the Tutsi National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel group had been challenged before his arrest. CNDP military chief General Bosco Ntaganda now claims leadership and has said the rebel group will join Congo’s army and support joint operations against the Hutu rebels, who are known as the FDLR.
What control Ntanganda has over the movement remains unclear. He must also contend with an arrest warrant against him from the ICC. But this has not so far prevented the Congolese or Rwandan government from working closely with him.
After the arrival of more than 3,500 Rwandan soldiers in Congo earlier this week, Nkunda’s arrest provides the clearest example yet of dramatically improved relations between the countries.
Nkunda’s rebellion was largely seen as an extension of a 1998-2003 Congo war during which Rwanda backed Congolese rebels and Kinshsasa used the Rwandan Hutu FDLR to bolster its army.
Analysts say there can be little doubt Nkunda’s arrest is part of a deal between two countries which just a few months ago were still exchanging heated hostile rhetoric.
In return for Nkunda’s arrest and Rwandan help to end the CNDP rebellion, which has repeatedly routed his army, Congo’s President Joseph Kabila has taken the risky step of inviting a former occupier back in to his country to hunt rebels.
Congo’s government has said the joint Rwandan-Congolese operations against the FDLR will last 10-15 days. Analysts believe this is optimistic, as the estimated 6,000 FDLR fighters are battle-hardened and can melt away into jungle terrain.
Previous Rwandan incursions have lasted many years and resulted in accusations of plunder. Having already lost funding from several donor governments over support for Nkunda, Rwanda will be under intense pressure not to overstay its welcome.
Measuring success against the FDLR is likely to be more complicated than ending the CNDP rebellion as there is no defined leadership to remove and units are spread out.
Kabila is also likely to face pressure of his own. There are concerns the FDLR might turn on civilians if attacked and Congolese Hutu civilians fear they may be targeted.
Congo’s anti-FDLR operation with the Rwandans has been highly secretive, with the head of the army and the speaker of parliament publicly complaining they were not kept informed. Any public perception the Rwandans, and not Kabila, are in charge, could result in political instability in Kinshasa.
The FDLR, some of whom took part in Rwanda’s 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, have been at the heart of 15 years of violence in the Great Lakes. Several Congolese and Rwandan Tutsi military initiatives have been justified by their threat, real or apparent, so their removal would be progress.
However, FDLR rebels say they will fight on until Rwanda opens political negotiations, a step Kigali has refused.
While it may end the current chapter of violence, even the demise of the CNDP is unlikely to pacify Congo’s mineral-rich but chaotic east. Localized battles for resources, ethnic tensions and conflicts over land are likely to rumble on.
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Editing by Pascal Fletcher