DAR ES SALAAM/KINSHASA (Reuters) - Tanzania is ready to take on Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), President Jakaya Kikwete said, suggesting a joint offensive with U.N.-backed, South African forces is imminent.
The U.N. mission in Congo said government troops and peacekeepers were intensifying deployments towards rebel positions but insurgents were also mobilizing and mixing with civilians, raising the risk of them being used as human shields.
Congo’s army and a 3,000-strong South African, Tanzanian and Malawian U.N. intervention force is due to launch an offensive against Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels, which have been at the heart of years of conflict in central Africa’s Great Lakes region.
In a statement issued late on Tuesday after talks with South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, Kikwete dismissed talk he was reluctant to tackle the FDLR.
“There are people who pretend to read Tanzania’s mind,” Kikwete said. “They claim that Tanzania has no intention of taking on rebel groups in the DRC. These are bizarre people because Tanzania, like South Africa and Malawi, has troops in the DRC with a firm United Nations mandate.”
Speculation over Tanzania’s readiness to tackle the FDLR stems from a number of statements suggesting some sympathy to their cause. Kikwete has previously suggested Rwanda should talk to the FDLR, something Kigali has ruled out. Last year, Tanzania’s government labeled the FDLR “freedom fighters”.
South African President Jacob Zuma was in Luanda on Wednesday for talks with his Angolan counterpart, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, that are expected to focus on security in eastern Congo, home to an estimated 1,400 seasoned FDLR guerrillas.
The militia, which includes ethnic Hutu soldiers responsible for carrying out Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, failed to meet a January deadline to disarm and surrender.
South Africa’s foreign ministry did not comment on Zuma’s discussions. But in a statement after the U.N. Security Council backed military action, Pretoria said it was committed to the “neutralization of negative forces in the eastern DRC”.
A spokesman for the U.N. mission said peacekeepers and government troops were advancing into FLDR areas and would start military operations “when the time was right”.
However, he warned that rebels were mixing with civilians, “probably to avoid being targeted or so they could use them as human shields”.
The United Nations has been under pressure to take out remaining guerrilla movements in eastern Congo after defeating the Tutsi-led M23 rebel group in 2013.
Additional reporting by David Lewis; Writing by Ed Cropley and David Lewis; Editing by Ralph Boulton