To his followers, Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is known affectionately as “Mon General.” He calls himself a born-again Christian and claims he is fighting a war to liberate Congo from corruption.
Yet prominent rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say his troops loot from, rape and execute civilians.
Lately, reports of troops from neighboring Rwanda and Angola in Nkunda’s stronghold in eastern Congo — on opposite sides of his 11-week offensive against government troops — have raised the specter of a renewal of Africa’s first world war.
“If the reports of an armed intervention by Angola are confirmed, it would certainly change the situation in eastern Congo,” said Herman Cohen, a national security official and assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
Angola lies more than 1,000 miles away from the battle grounds in eastern Congo, where Nkunda’s forces have forced 250,000 civilians to flee to the regional capital of Goma for protection.
From 1997 until a shaky peace deal in 2003, Angola, Zimbabwe, Chad and Namibia helped Congolese forces prevent the ouster of the government of Congolese President Laurent Kabila by the combined forces of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. An estimated 3 million people died.
The Rwandans had earlier installed Mr. Kabila, a man from southeastern Congo, in power, bringing an end to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s three decades of rule.
The Rwandans later turned against Mr. Kabila who was assassinated in 2001.
Now the threat of renewed fighting, with a flood of photos depicting civilian refugees on dirt roads, have rallied the United States, United Nations, the African Union and individual European countries to call for a negotiated settlement.
This week, Africa experts Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group appealed for an intensified effort to craft a peace deal.
But in an interview on National Public Radio, they were unable to confirm that foreign forces had joined the fighting.
A decade earlier, Angola’s first intervention was based on concern that a Rwanda-controlled government in Kinshasa would ally itself with Jonas Savimbi, then leader of the Angolan rebel group known as UNITA, or the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.
Savimbi was killed by government troops in 2002. But it appears that Angola still regards Tutsi-led Rwanda as a hostile country, with Nkunda the latest Rwandan ally to appear in eastern Congo.
Rwanda denies that it is offering Nkunda material help but justifies moral support on grounds that he is opposing Rwandan exiles who fled Rwanda after committing genocide against the Tutsi and their Hutu supporters.
Nkunda, shown posing in news photos like a rock star, at times has defined his ambitions narrowly, as a fight to protect Congolese Tutsi against their enemies Rwandan Hutu exiles.
Other fighters in eastern Congo include indigenous Congolese militias such as the Mai Mai, who see themselves as defending their turf against Rwandan Tutsi incursions.
At other times, Nkunda has outlined far more ambitious plans than protection of fellow Tutsis. In a recent interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., he said his ultimate aim is to overthrow the Congolese government in Kinshasa, now headed by Mr. Kabila’s son, President Joseph Kabila.
The one thing that Nkunda and many rebel leaders have in common is their allegiance to the Tutsi-led Rwandan government in Kigali. Tutsis from exile in Uganda replaced the Hutu government that ruled Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
In 1997, a Rwandan general flew a force across the vast Congo to the gates of Kinshasa, only to be repelled by the Angolans.
In 1998, the Rally for Congolese Democracy, of which Nkunda was a member, opposed the Kinshasa government.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame has developed huge stakes in the rich mineral resources of eastern Congo.
Though Rwanda said its aim is the defeat Hutus who fled to Congo after the Rwandan genocide, other evidence belies this claim.
Beginning in 1996, when it helped install Laurent Kabila as president, the relatively small Rwandan nation has integrated its economy with Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces. That region sits astride Lake Kivu, one of Africa’s Great Lakes, and is one of the richest regions in the world in natural resources. It has an abundance of oil, copper and cobalt.
Previously, Rwanda’s main moneymaking export was coffee.
Goma, the principal town of North Kivu province is within reach of Nkunda’s forces. Their march toward that town in the past 11 weeks has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees, as well as government troops, fleeing.
Other reports say that government troops are on the march north of Goma to confront the rebels, who had declared a unilateral cease-fire.
South Kivu, with its capital city of Bukavu, has not been part of Nkunda’s offensive, because it lies adjacent to Burundi, Central Africa’s other Tutsi-dominated state.
Congo’s tortured modern history began almost immediately after independence in 1960. Its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, an iconic figure, was assassinated after resisting Belgium’s efforts to retain post-colonial control. He flirted with the idea of appealing to the Soviet Union as a counterweight.
The country was then run to the ground in the Mobutu years, only to come into conflict with Rwanda’s economic and political ambitions in the 1990s.