- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

KINSHASA, Congo | In a stunning reversal of alliances, Rwandan troops captured Congo’s most powerful rebel leader, a longtime ally who the Congolese government says was at the heart of years of war in the east, officials said Friday.

Congo applauded the surprise arrest, hoping it would herald a new era of peace and mark the end of the Central African nation’s Tutsi rebellion. But few believe the country’s problems are over and many fear the unprecedented and unpopular deal with former enemy Rwanda is a risky gamble that could unleash more bloodshed.

Rwanda detained Gen. Laurent Nkunda apparently as part of an agreement with Congo that opened the way for thousands of Rwandan soldiers to cross the border this week in a joint operation to hunt down Rwandan Hutu militiamen.

The region has been mired in conflict since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide spilled across the border and Hutu militias sought refuge here. Rwanda has invaded twice to eradicate the militias - though it was accused of plundering Congo’s great mineral riches instead. The militia’s presence also gave birth in 2004 to Gen. Nkunda’s rebellion, whose raison d’etre was defending minority Tutsis against Rwandan Hutus.

It was a remarkable fall from grace for once-powerful Gen. Nkunda, who only weeks ago had forced Congo’s embattled government to negotiate at peace talks in Kenya after his fighters advanced to the outskirts of the regional capital, Goma, forcing more than 250,000 people from their homes.

Analysts say Rwanda was under intense international pressure to use its influence over the Tutsi rebellion to end the crisis. At the same time, Rwanda and a clique of rebel commanders had grown disenchanted with Gen. Nkunda, who they increasingly regarded as a flippant, authoritarian megalomaniac who purportedly embezzled money from rebel coffers.

Late Thursday, Rwandan and Congolese troops converged on Gen. Nkunda’s stronghold in the tiny town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border, said government spokesman Lambert Mende. Gen. Nkunda’s forces resisted and briefly opened fire before fleeing farther south and crossing into Rwanda, he said.

Rwandan troops on the other side of the border took Gen. Nkunda into custody because forces loyal to him resisted the operation, Rwandan army spokesman Maj. Jill Rutaremara said.

“Whoever resists the smooth running of the joint operation is a barrier,” Maj. Rutaremara said by telephone from Tanzania. “He was a barrier.”

Mr. Mende applauded the arrest, calling it “a positive development for pacifying and securing the region.” He also said he hoped Rwanda would extradite Gen. Nkunda to face trial.

Congo’s government issued an international warrant against Gen. Nkunda in 2005 for war crimes and rights abuses purportedly committed when his fighters seized the lakeside city of Bukavu a year earlier.

Gen. Nkunda was the country’s most powerful rebel, commanding a fiefdom fueled by forced taxation. His thousands-strong army skirmished frequently with government forces and their Hutu militia allies in the terraced green hills of the east.

But earlier this month, Gen. Nkunda suffered a devastating blow when his top commanders - likely encouraged by Rwanda - broke away and formed a splinter faction. They then promised a radical change: They would integrate their fighters into the national army they spent years fighting and hunt down the Hutu militias with them.

The ouster of Gen. Nkunda removes Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s main internal nemesis and allows the central government to take back huge swaths of territory previously in rebel hands. But inviting Rwanda into Congo is a huge political gamble that could endanger the nation’s first democratically elected government in 40 years and destabilize the country.

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