UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo on Monday condemned “disingenuous” claims that high-ranking Rwandan officials are backing an army mutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a bid to make Rwanda a scapegoat for its former enemy’s problems.
Mushikiwabo called for calm and warned that the situation had resulted in rhetoric reminiscent of the lead-up to a 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed.
The fortunes of the two countries have been inextricably linked after more than a million Rwandans fled across the border in the wake of the genocide, setting off nearly two decades of conflict in Congo which left millions dead.
“This is hardly the first time Rwanda has been the scapegoat for problems in the region,” Mushikiwabo told a news conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York. “Rwanda is not in any way supporting any armed group in the region.”
“Rwanda would not participate in any destabilizing act in the region and in eastern DRC in particular,” she said.
The eastern Congo province of North Kivu has been swept by waves of violence since March, after hundreds of former rebels defected from the army in support of a renegade general, Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied allegations that the rebels, known as M23, are receiving cross-border support, but U.N. experts have evidence that Rwanda’s defense minister and two senior military officials have been backing them.
The experts said the mutiny had likely been planned since Congo’s controversial presidential election last November, won by President Joseph Kabila despite allegations of fraud.
Mushikiwabo said she had not yet seen the allegations by the U.N experts, which were made after an initial report on the Democratic Republic of Congo had been written but, diplomats said, were likely to be included in an annex.
“The idea that there is some bombshell or something hidden in an annex (of the U.N. report) that countries are trying to block for the benefit of Rwanda is just ridiculous. It’s more allegations on top of allegations,” Mushikiwabo said.
Congo has accused the United States of blocking the annex - an allegation Washington has vehemently rejected. U.N. Security Council diplomats said the annex would be published next month, once Rwanda has had a chance to respond to the allegations.
The Security Council condemned the mutiny in eastern Congo earlier this month and called on neighboring countries to prevent the armed groups in North Kivu province from receiving outside support. It urged a full investigation of credible reports of outside support for armed groups.
Rwanda has repeatedly sent its forces into eastern Congo, citing a need to pursue Rwandan rebels based there, but the Rwandan forces have been accused of pillaging the region’s natural resources.
Mushikiwabo said evidence to back up claims that Rwanda was helping the rebels in eastern Congo was ”very hard to come by.
“We’re also concerned ... with the rhetoric and the kind of bigotry that we find on a number of web sites,” she said. “Even in some media close to the government in the DRC there is talk of chasing the Rwandans, killing the Tutsi, so this is very reminiscent of the rhetoric right before the genocide in 1994.”
One diplomat familiar with the United Nations’ operations in Congo said, however, that the Rwandan denials are “not credible.”
The renewed fighting in North Kivu province was partly triggered by Kabila’s announcement that he planned to arrest Ntaganda, a former rebel, who was integrated into the army along with other insurgents as part of a 2009 peace deal.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has sought Ntaganda’s arrest since 2006 on charges of conscripting child soldiers for his rebel militia. The court announced new charges in May, including murder, ethnic persecution and rape.
Mushikiwabo said the violence in eastern Congo could not simply be blamed on Ntaganda’s M23.
“There is an important discussion that should take place between these breakaway groups and the central government for lasting peace to take place and the fact that hasn’t happened is definitely a big part of the problems today,” she said.
“You have so many ... groups that are all claiming something and the local population becomes the victim,” she said. “They know no rules, they know no laws and they pillage and rape and kill and it’s been going on for the last 18 years.”
Mushikiwabo also questioned the effectiveness of a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo. “It’s important to demand accountability. This large force with so much money, why is it that we still have instability in the region?” she said.
Editing by Christopher Wilson