By Nichola Bariyo and Alexis Flynn/Associated Press
Congo’s M23 rebels
KAMPALA, Uganda—Hopes for a United Nations deal struck this weekend aimed at ending the long-running conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo quickly began to unravel, as rival rebel groups in eastern Congo entered into a second day of fighting on Monday.
Clashes between rebels in Rutshuru, a gold-producing region in the restive North Kivu province, began just hours after the U.N. and 11 regional governments meeting Sunday in Ethiopia agreed to beef up peacekeeping efforts in the area.
Congo’s M23 rebels—mutineers from the Congolese army who seized a series of eastern towns in a lightning offensive late last year—weren’t involved in the pact, and are locked in separate negotiations with the Congolese government. On Sunday, fighting broke out between M23 rebels and those from the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan rebel group known as the FDLR.
Fighting in Rutshuru continued Monday, according to aid officials operating in the area and Ugandan soldiers stationed at the border.
At least 10 civilians were killed in the clashes, which also left more than a dozen combatants dead, aid officials said. Hundreds of people have been displaced since Sunday as fighting has spread from Rutshuru toward the mineral transit hub of Bunagana, near the Ugandan border, said Eddy Mbuyi, a spokesman for Oxfam in Goma.
“There is a heavy movement of troops in areas under the M23 control,” Mr. Mbuyi said in an interview. “Humanitarian access is increasingly becoming difficult.”
Aid officials and those familiar with local militaries said some of the recent clashes have been between factions within the M23—triggered by rifts between M23’s renegade former Congo army general, Bosco Ntaganda, and M23 commander Sultani Makenga, following the signing of the peace deal in Ethiopia, said the people familiar with the military.
A spokesman for the M23 rebels denied the claims, accusing the FDLR of attacking M23 rebel positions late Sunday. “The attackers retreated late in the night.…We are pursuing them,” said M23 spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa, who also accused the Congolese government of helping orchestrate the attack.
Congo has repeatedly denied accusations leveled against it by Rwanda and the M23 rebels that it backs the FDLR, which is comprised mainly of extremist Hutus, who are accused of orchestrating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
In a signing ceremony in Addis Ababa overseen by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, leaders from 11 African nations committed to a “peace framework agreement” that aims to beef up peacekeeping efforts and appointing a special envoy to help lead mediation efforts.
However, observers caution that the initiative, which didn’t include the M23 or other rebel groups, could backfire.
“Ironically, this peace deal could spark more violence,” said Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute and a former member of the U.N. group of experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo, explaining that an excluded M23 may feel they have more to gain by resuming their fight.
The rebels decried the Addis Ababa peace agreement, saying that it is likely to bring a return of fighting. “What was signed in Ethiopia is not a peace agreement, because it is calling for the use of force,” Mr. Bisimwa said. “Our people are tired of fighting.”
The U.S. State Department said that while it “strongly supported” the signatories’ initiative in committing to the pact, urgent follow-up was needed to ensure the right mechanisms were put in place to promote regional peace and security.
“The continuing security and humanitarian crisis in eastern DRC highlights the urgent need for accelerated reforms within the DRC and increased cooperation among key countries in the Great Lakes region, particularly the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda,” said the State Department statement.
The M23 has been in peace talks with the government since December, but with a decisive breakthrough elusive, the latest clashes risk plunging the Central African nation into renewed war.
Uganda has deployed troops heavily on its side of the border to avoid the conflict from spilling across, said Lt. Ninsiima Rwakijuma, the spokesman for the second army division in western Uganda. “But we won’t intervene,” he added.
The renewed violence underscores the precarious security situation in the mineral-rich region, which the U.N. now hopes to address by deploying a brigade of African soldiers to pursue more than a dozen rebel groups.
The M23 rebellion, which erupted in April last year, has displaced nearly 1 million people and threatened to spill into the wider region as it did in the 1990s.
The U.N.-mediated deal signed Sunday is meant to restrain neighboring countries from interfering in Congo’s long-standing conflict. Among the signatories were Uganda and Rwanda, which stand accused by the U.N. of creating, arming and commanding the M23 in Congo. Both countries deny the accusations.
The U.N. Security Council said Sunday that despite the deal, it is deeply concerned by worsening unrest in eastern Congo.
“The overall situation is volatile and precarious,” said Roger Meece, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, speaking to the Security Council on Friday. He said that eastern Congo “could break down at any time into large-scale conflict without much, if any, prior warning.”
Write to Nicholas Bariyo at firstname.lastname@example.org and Alexis Flynn at email@example.com