- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2002

BUKAVU, Congo Rwanda began pulling out 6,000 troops from a border province this week, the latest stage in a withdrawal of all its forces from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo that Rwanda hopes to complete by the weekend, a top commander said.

U.N. military observers in white jeeps patrolled the streets of this eastern town in South Kivu province to verify Tuesday's withdrawal while Rwandan helicopter gunships hovered overhead to provide security for troops traveling in a convoy of 45 trucks that rolled into Bukavu from remote locations.

"All [the] battalions should cross the Ruzizi River [Rwanda's border with Congo south of Lake Kivu] by the end of today," army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. James Kabarebe told the Associated Press. He said six other battalions were set to cross into Rwandan soil yesterday. "This is the biggest operation since withdrawal began two weeks ago."

By Monday, 6,746 Rwandan troops had pulled out of Congo since the pullback began in mid-September, said Joseph Mutaboba, a Rwandan Foreign Ministry official.

Gen. Kabarebe said Rwanda intends to finish its withdrawal by the end of the week. Rwanda has never said how many troops it has in Congo, though estimates have put the number at 23,400.

The withdrawal expected to cost $17 million was agreed to under a July 30 peace deal signed in South Africa by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and President Joseph Kabila of Congo.

The four-year war in Congo broke out in August 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda sent thousands of troops and military hardware to back Congolese rebels seeking to oust Mr. Kabila's father, President Laurent Kabila. They accused him of supporting rebels threatening regional security.

Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops to back the government in Kinshasa.

"During the four years we spent in Congo, we did a lot of work. We weakened our enemy, who is no longer a big threat to us," Gen. Kabarebe told the troops. "We are pulling out of Congo, and we will defend our borders, and we have the capacity to do so."

Hundreds of residents lined Bukavu's dusty streets on Tuesday and crowded on top of trucks to wave, whistle and cheer as the Rwandan army convoy headed for the assembly point before crossing the border.

"I am very happy to see them go," Paschal Matabalo, a casual laborer, said as a Rwandan helicopter gunship passed overhead. "I am a Congolese. I have nothing against Rwandans. It's just that I am opposed to the presence of their troops in our country."

Under the July accord, Rwanda agreed to withdraw its troops from Congo in exchange for Mr. Kabila's pledge to disarm, demobilize and repatriate former Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militiamen who fled to Congo after carrying out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

More than 500,000 minority Tutsis and members of the Hutu majority who would not join the slaughter were killed during the 100-day bloodletting.

The Rwandan rebels fought alongside the Kinshasa government in the conflict preceding the overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and used eastern parts of the country as launchpads for attacks in Rwanda.

"Now that Rwandan troops are leaving, the [Hutu militia] should also be expelled from this country," said Dred Bwenge, a peace activist. "For too long they have jeopardized our security, looted our property and raped our women. It is about time the international community took decisive action against them."

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