Rwandan and Congolese troops traded heavy weapons fire on Thursday in a second day of fighting on the border between the two neighbours who have been locked in a decades-long dispute.
After the morning clashes died down, rival troops were engaged in a staredown from afar in the mountainous Kanyesheza region, which straddles the border, a Congolese administrative official told AFP.
The border clashes echo events of late 1996, when the forces of then-Zaire (later renamed Democratic Republic of Congo) strongman Mobutu Sese Seko exchanged fire with the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), that had taken power in July 1994 after a genocide in which nearly one million Rwandese were killed.
In one of the more significant clashes on November 1, 1996, thousands of fled Gisenyi, northern Rwanda, as Kigali and Kinshasa troops exchanged fire across their border.
Then, as today, the Rwanda government accused Kinshasa of aiding rebels, composed of former Rwanda army men (FAR) and militia that were responsible for the genocide.
In the end, the RPA (renamed Rwanda Defence Forces, RDF, in 2002) launched a controversial invasion of Zaire to close the camps where authorities alleged that over one million Rwandese refugees were being hostage by former genocidaires.
Millions of mainly Rwandese Hutu refugees streamed back home, but human rights groups accused the RPA of killing many of them, a charge Kigali denied.
Pressed on to Kinshasa
Rwanda at that time also allied with the newly formed Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaire (AFDL), an anti-Mobutu rebel group, and pressed on with the war up to Kinshasa. In May 1997, Rwanda forces and the AFDL overthrew the Mobutu regime. AFDL leader Laurent Kabila, father of current president Joseph Kabila, was installed as president.
Though these clashes are nothing on the scale of 1996, nevertheless a resident on the Congolese side of the frontier is quoted telling AFP that about “30 families” were fleeing the border regions after the fighting.
A senior Congolese military officer said that Rwandan troops had attacked their positions, but a Rwandan military source, also speaking anonymously, told AFP that there had “not been serious clashes, they were sporadic firings” of heavy weapons.
The latest cross-border clash came a day after the two sides exchanged automatic weapons fire, with each blaming the other for the outbreak of violence.
Rwanda’s army on Thursday displayed five bodies to journalists that it said were Congolese soldiers killed in the fighting on Wednesday, an AFP reporter said.
Lambert Mende, a spokesman for the Congolese government, accused Rwanda of lying about the deaths of its soldiers.
“Rwandans have taken corpses from hospitals, or killed poor peasants—perhaps Congolese, Rwandan maybe—just to back up their story,” he said.
The DRC has said only one of its soldiers was killed.
The Congolese army said the conflict started after one of its soldiers was kidnapped by Rwandan troops who crossed into its North Kivu province.
However Rwanda said Congolese troops crossed into its territory and opened fire on Rwandan soldiers.
“We are only seeking to reinforce our positions,” North Kivu governor Julien Paluku said. A resident of a village on the road from Goma to Kanyesheza, said he saw mounted heavy machine-guns and three army tanks roll past on Thursday morning.
In an apparent sign of goodwill, the Rwandan and Congolese armies sent a team from a Joint Verification Mission (JVM) they have formed with the United Nations to carry out checks in the conflict zone, a JVM official who monitors the border said.
Both the JVM and a western military source confirmed the deaths of the five Congolese soldiers. No deaths were reported in Thursday’s fighting.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said diplomatic efforts were under way to “avoid unnecessary tension” and to encourage the DRC and Rwanda to “continue furthering good neighbourly relations.”
Relations have been strained for decades between the neighbours, with the DRC accusing Rwanda of seeking to destabilise it by backing various militia, which have risen up against Kinshasa.
Much of the tension arises from the presence in the eastern DRC of Rwandan Hutu rebels in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). In that sense, little has changed from 18 years ago.
But with both sides massing troops at the border, there is a risk that any further clashes can very easily spiral into a major confrontation.