The African Union (AU) declared on Sunday that it was ready to send a pan-continental force to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in order to neutralise illegal armed groups in the giant but relentlessly unstable Great Lakes nation.
The announcement was made by AU Chairman Jean Ping during a summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in response to the so-called 'M23' – the March 23 movement– a rebel group uprooting thousands of people in DRC's mineral-rich east since it launched a mutiny there in early April.
The AU has established significant international credibility over the last year in Somalia, where its troops have pushed al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, out of their strongholds, including the capital of Mogadishu.
But a successful military intervention in DRC will surely be a tall order, since armies from Rwanda and Uganda, who invaded their mineral-rich neighbour during the Second Congo War in the late 1990s, would not exactly be welcomed by the Congolese government.
The world's biggest peacekeeping operation – the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) – is already deployed in the country, with 22,000 uniformed personnel on the ground, at a cost of 1.5 billion US dollars (1.2 billion euros) per year. So far, the mission has been able to prevent the rebels from grabbing swathes of territory in Congo’s tin-rich North Kivu province.
The rebels' biggest breakthrough to date came nine days ago, when they took the town of Bunagana, on the border with Uganda.
Travel to the East
The next day they invited me, along with several other journalists, on a tour of captured positions, including a Congolese army base, where supposedly elite troops left behind huge piles of munitions in their race to flee the rebel advance.
The mutineers took great joy in showing off their unexpected haul, which includes automatic weapons, ammunition, rocket propelled grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns.
They gleefully mocked their enemy. "[Congo’s President Joseph] Kabila is our chief logistician," joked rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama, before snorting “they call themselves an army!” while holding a commando’s rope and poking fun at the Belgian-trained 42nd battalion, which had disgraced itself by fleeing across the border into Uganda the day before.
The weapons haul amounted to a public relations coup for the rebels, since UN-appointed experts claimed in June the rebels were being illicitly armed by Rwanda's government.
These claims have been consistently denied by both Rwanda and the mutineers. “We, the M23 rebels, have captured arms in the field, from the Congolese army, so that means they are the ones supplying us,” Kazarama was at pains to point out, claiming that there was no need to rely on external military support.
The UN experts, however, are confident in their own claims. They accuse Rwanda's army of providing "weapons and ammunition" and of launching direct cross-border "interventions into Congolese territory to reinforce M23," in a process allegedly overseen by the country's defence minister and army chief.
If true, this represents a return to the bad old days, when Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated government manipulated the weaknesses of Congo's ramshackle and fragmented army, in order to extend their control over the cross-border mineral trade.
Rutshuru and Kiwanja
On Sunday July 8, the Congolese army was said to have deserted two further towns, Rutshuru and Kiwanja, about 30km from the border. Several other journalists and I travelled to both locations, ahead of the rebel advance, finding them deserted by security forces, except for UN troops.
Along the road, we found more fleeing civilians. Some confided in us that they were scared of the rebels, who they said were forcibly recruiting children in their villages.
Most would not give their names. But one man – 21-year old Luis Baziya – was happy to go on the record. "They started taking boys in our village, giving them uniforms and guns," he told us defiantly." So young boys are running and hiding themselves because of this."
These claims chime with recent research carried out by Human Rights Watch.
Rwanda's government is a darling of the West, particularly the United States and Britain. Despite the growing allegations of forcible recruitment by the rebels – and the evidence presented by the UN experts that the mutineers are heavily backed by Rwanda – these governments have, thus far at least, shown little sign that they are prepared to suspend bilateral aid.
Comprised largely of Congolese Tutsi officers, the 'M23' takes its name from a peace deal signed on 23 March 2009. That agreement was meant to integrate an earlier Congolese Tutsi rebel group – the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), which was effectively a previous incarnation of today's M23 – into the national army.
The mutineers claim that Congo's government has failed to implement the March 2009 peace deal, including a requirement to neutralise an extremist Hutu militia which has operated in exile in eastern Congo since perpetrating Rwanda's 1994 genocide against Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
However, in reality, the Hutu militia has been weakened substantially in recent years, and the latest mutiny was sparked more by fears that Congo's government was finally seeking to reduce Tutsi officers' de facto control over North Kivu's mineral trade.
Since I left rebel-held territory, the mutineers have pulled back from Kiwanja and Rutshuru, claiming that their aim is not geographical expansion. But many fear that their next target will be Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The UN has fortified positions in this city, and on July 13, in an unusual display of force, reportedly used helicopter gunships to pound rebel positions at Rumangabo, about 40km from Goma.
Meanwhile, inter-communal tensions have risen considerably, with the M23 claiming that Tutsis have been physically attacked in Goma.
The danger now is that such tensions could escalate, leading to civilian killings. And with memories of the 1994 genocide still so raw, it would take no more than a handful of Tutsi deaths, for Rwanda to justify yet another invasion of its mineral-rich neighbour.