UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The rebel seizure of a key city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo comes eight months after a small mutiny grew into a well-armed insurgency commanded by Rwanda’s defense minister, U.N. experts and some officials say.
The Congolese government says Rwanda is orchestrating the revolt to grab resources including diamonds, gold and coltan, used in electronics. Kigali denies the charges.
Hundreds of soldiers defected from the Congolese army in March in North Kivu province and joined the M23 rebel group, whose ranks have swelled to several thousand with the help of fighters recruited by the Rwandan army, U.N. experts said.
A confidential report by the U.N. Security Council’s Group of Experts, first seen by Reuters last month and made public on Wednesday, said Rwandan troops have also been reinforcing M23 operations and supplying weapons and ammunition, while Rwandan Defense Minister James Kabarebe has been commanding the entire rebellion from Kigali.
Speaking to the U.N. Security Council via video link from Kinshasa on Wednesday, Roger Meece, head of the 17,000-strong U.N. mission in Congo known as MONUSCO, said M23 has achieved what he described as “impressive capabilities.”
He said peacekeepers had encountered English-speaking rebels - an official language of Rwanda, not Congo - with surprising weaponry and equipment, suggesting they had external support.
“The M23 forces are well-provisioned and well-supplied with uniforms and a variety of arms and ammunitions, many of which clearly have not come from existing FARDC (Congolese army) stocks,” Meece told the Security Council.
“They exhibit many characteristics of a strong, disciplined, established military force with sophisticated tactics and operations, including night operations, which are not characteristic of traditional performance,” he said.
The M23 rebels vowed on Wednesday to “liberate” all of the Democratic Republic of Congo after seizing the city of Goma on Tuesday.
The U.N. experts report said Rwanda exercised overall command and strategic planning for M23. The report also accused Uganda of aiding the insurgency, a claim Kampala denies.
“Rwanda continues to violate the arms embargo through direct military support to M23 rebels, facilitation of recruitment, encouragement and facilitation of FARDC (Congolese army) desertions as well as the provision of arms and ammunition, intelligence, and political advice,” said the UN report.
The experts said in the report that M23 officers and soldiers had witnessed deliveries of weapons and ammunition by the Rwandan army to M23 headquarters every two weeks since the rebellion started.
A U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday that as the rebels advanced on Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, they appeared to have received help as they had grown in numbers and “suddenly got a lot better.”
“On Thursday when they launched their first attack, they were not able to repulse the Congolese army,” the official said. “On Friday there was a bit of a lull and on Saturday morning it was just like a Blitzkrieg. ... Their tactics are good.”
Another senior U.N. official has said Rwanda had effectively “annexed” eastern Congo using the rebel force, and the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned in a resolution “attempts by the M23 to establish an illegitimate parallel administration and to undermine state authority.
Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said last month that Kigali has no “desire to cut off part of the DRC. ... Rwanda is very happy with its size.” Rwanda has backed armed movements in the Congo over the past two decades, citing a need to tackle Rwandan rebels operating out of Congo’s eastern hills.
The Security Council also expressed deep concern in its resolution “that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment, causing a significant increase of the military abilities of the M23.”
The council’s resolution “demands that any and all outside support to the M23 cease immediately.”
The rebellion is partly funded by traders in Rwanda who are profiting from tin, tungsten and tantalum smuggled across the border from mines in the eastern DRC, according to the U.N. experts’ report.
The experts said M23 had been seeking to open a front in western Congo and as a result had “adopted a broader political platform, denouncing the flaws in the 2011 electoral process and the lack of good governance by the President Joseph Kabila.”
Goma’s capture will be an embarrassment for Kabila, who won re-election late last year in polls that triggered widespread riots in Kinshasa and which international observers said were marred by fraud.
The M23 rebels take their name from a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu and led to their integration into the national army. They accuse the government of not respecting the deal.
The renewed fighting was also partly triggered by Kabila’s announcement that he would arrest former Congolese general Bosco Ntaganda - who controls the rebellion on the ground in eastern Congo - on International Criminal Court charges of conscripting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution and rape.
The full U.N. Security Council's Group of Experts report on Congo can be seen here: here/2012/843
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Todd Eastham