- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

KINSHASA, Congo | Rwandan and Congolese troops pushed deeper into zones in Congo held by Rwandan Hutu militiamen Sunday in a joint military operation designed to crush armed groups that have destabilized central Africa, a military spokesman said.

Rwanda and Congo have been enemies for years, but the two neighbors suddenly changed tactics and began cooperating last week to disarm groups that each nation had previously backed as proxies.

Eastern Congo has been racked by violence since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide spilled war across the border. Hutu militias that participated in the massacres of more than 500,000 mostly ethnic Tutsi civilians sought refuge in Congo.

Rwanda invaded Congo twice in the 1990s to eradicate the militias, though it was accused of plundering the neighboring country’s vast mineral wealth instead. The militia’s presence in Congo also gave birth in 2004 to a Tutsi rebellion led by Laurent Nkunda, who was allied to Rwanda.

But Rwandan troops turned on Nkunda and captured him Thursday as part of a breakthrough deal in which at least 4,000 Rwandan soldiers entered Congo to hunt down the Hutu militias. The move is a risky gamble for Congolese President Joseph Kabila because the Rwandans are deeply unpopular, and some fear they may provoke more violence.

The remarkable deal has allowed Congo to take back territories previously controlled by rebels, something that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago. It also included a promise by the remnants of Nkunda’s rebels to operate under the command of the national army and join it later.

The rebels appear to be cooperating, and nearly 500 army troops and rebels could be seen Saturday moving together on the main road north of the provincial capital, Goma, toward Rutshuru, which had been held by Nkunda’s Tutsi forces.

Congolese military spokesman Capt. Olivier Hamuli claimed Nkunda’s fighters, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 men, already had integrated into the army and the rebel force no longer existed.

Former rebel spokesman Col. Seraphin Mirindi, who has been close to Nkunda, said the rebels were participating in the joint Congolese-Rwandan operation, and its six brigades were now under army command.

U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Lt. Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich could not say whether the rebels were integrated, however.

Peacekeepers saw several hundred rebels on the move with the joint Congolese-Rwandan force, and said some rebel units already might have been integrated on an “ad-hoc basis.”

The 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is not part of the operation, but U.N. troops plan to carry out patrols in zones dominated by the militias “to get an idea what is going on” there, Col. Dietrich said.

*AP writer Todd Pitman contributed to this report.

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