November 25, 2004

AP: Rwanda Leader Renews Invasion Threat

DAKAR, Senegal - Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Thursday renewed the invasion threat that ignited Central Africa's deadliest conflict, the 1998-2002 Congo war, saying the continuing presence of Rwandan Hutu rebels in neighboring Congo means "the war is already on."

"At the appropriate moment, we certainly will take measures," Kagame told The Associated Press, calling a 5-month-old U.N.-led campaign to disarm the Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo a failure.

Asked about any deadline for Rwandan action, he said, "It should have been yesterday."

A U.N. Security Council mission visiting the region urged Rwanda to show restraint.

"The mission strongly urges the government of Rwanda to refrain from any action that would violate international law, undermine this region's fragile stability or jeopardize the transition process supported by the international community," it said in a statement from Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.

While the Rwandan leader has always talked tough about the lingering presence in Congo of militias opposed to his government, a U.N. announcement Wednesday added immediacy to the warning: A senior Rwandan official had advised U.N. Congo special adviser William Swing that Rwanda would attack bases of Rwandan Hutu rebels within Congo "very soon," U.N. mission spokeswoman Patricia Tome told reporters.

History added weight: Rwanda has invaded Congo twice before in pursuit of the rebels. The second time, in 1998, touched off a five-year war that drew the armies of four other nations into Congo and killed an estimated 3.2 million people in eastern Congo alone, territory under Rwanda's wartime control.

Kagame, interviewed during a state visit to Senegal, reacted harshly to the idea of giving the U.N.-backed disarmament program more time to neutralize the threat from Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo, saying the rebels had already relaunched cross-border attacks.

"You're telling me two months to have more deaths?" he asked. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Who is going to take care of this problem?" the Rwandan leader asked, rejecting the idea of voluntary disarmament for "extremists."

"If the international community cannot, no one can except ourselves, because we simply cannot be punching bags for these criminals."

At issue: Rwandan Hutu militias at the heart of the last 10 years of bloodletting in central Africa that began with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Kagame's largely Tutsi forces routed the killers, but many fled to eastern Congo to escape retribution.

Rwanda invaded in 1996 and again in 1998, saying Congo's weak, distant capital, Kinshasa, was doing nothing to stem the threat to neighboring countries posed by the militia presence in the east.

The 1998 invasion kicked off what became known as Africa's first world war. The Ugandan and Rwandan militaries and allied Congolese rebel groups took control of much of Congo's north and east, while the armies of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia intervened to hold Congo's capital, Kinshasa, from the insurgents.

The war stalemated for years. The United Nations and others accused all foreign armies of prolonging the conflict to plunder Congo's diamonds, gold, cobalt and other natural wealth.

Stepped-up international pressure finally forced the withdrawal of foreign armies, and Congo's government and ex-rebels joined in a 2003 power-share government meant to lead Congo to its first-ever democratic elections next year.

On Wednesday, Congo called Rwanda's latest complaints a pretext to resume the plunder.

"Rwanda occupied us for five years, saying they were searching for the Interahamwe, but they weren't very effective," Congolese spokesman Henri Mova Sakanyi said, using the term for the Rwanda Hutu militia. "Rwanda is singing this old tune to hide its real intentions, which are to loot Congo's riches."

An estimated 8,000 of the extremists remain in Congo. In July, the United Nations and Congo launched what they said would be at least an 11-month program to disarm Rwandan Hutu militias and other combatants in Congo's lawless east.

The United Nations has also begun deployments that will bring its U.N. Congo force from about 11,000 to 16,000.

On Thursday, Kagame rejected suggestions that he was asking the United Nations to do in a few weeks what Rwanda had been unable to in five years: disarm the last Rwandan Hutu militias.

Rwanda was able to eliminate all but 25 to 30 percent of the Rwandan militias, and block all cross-border attacks as long as its army was in Congo, Kagame said.

"Now, the force is being reconstituted by the absence of clear action against these forces," he said.

Rwandan Hutu rebels have resumed cross-border raids into Rwanda "under watch of the international community," hitting as recently as Nov. 15, he said. He did not elaborate.

"The war is already on - otherwise what would the bases be doing in Congo?" he asked.


Associated Press writer Aloys Niyoyita in Bujumbura, Burundi, contributed to this report.