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DRC welcomes deployment of regional military force

Congolese policemen are seen at the border between Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo on June 17, 2022 after a shootout was reported between soldiers on the two sides of the border.

KINSHASA – The Democratic Republic of the Congo said it welcomes the deployment of a new regional military force led by the East African Community, without the participation of Rwandan soldiers, to enforce peace in provinces targeted by the rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23).

Tensions continue running high in DRC's northeastern North Kivu province with heavy fighting between Congolese soldiers and M23 rebels that have been on the offensive since late March and reportedly took control of multiple townships. Besides, relations between the two neighbors are now on thin ice over Kigali's alleged hidden agenda to "occupy" Congolese resources by supporting the M23.

Tensions continue running high in DRC's northeastern North Kivu province with heavy fighting between Congolese soldiers and M23 rebels that have been on the offensive since late March and reportedly took control by force of multiple townships

New regional military force

Since late March, M23 has been on the offensive in the North Kivu province, with thousands of civilians displaced by ongoing fighting. Bunagana, a key strategic town bordering Uganda, reportedly fell into the hands of rebels Monday. Late Friday, the M23 claimed to have taken control of two more villages within the province's Rutshuru territory.

On Wednesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who currently chairs the EAC, called for the immediate deployment of a new regional military force to try to stop rebel violence in the eastern DRC, where dozens of armed groups have been active for more than two decades.

A meeting of regional commanders, which will be held Sunday in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, "should finalize the preparations to undertake the deployment of the regional force," said Kenyatta.

ALSO READ: DRC rebels seize key eastern border town, local activists say

On Friday, in a statement written in English, the francophone Kinshasa authorities said that they "welcomed" the deployment of the regional military force, but would not "accept the participation of Rwanda in this joint force," over Kigali's alleged support of the M23.

In an interview with the French media France 24 Friday, however, Rwanda's top diplomat Vincent Biruta not only "supported" the deployment of the regional military force but also announced that Rwanda "is ready to send its men to this regional force."

Thin ice

As the two neighbors accused each other of supporting rebels opposing respectively to each side, the two countries have gone from trading verbal blows to taking serious actions, and the bilateral relations are now on thin ice.

After shutting down all flights of RwandAir, the flag carrier airline of Rwanda, to the DRC soil, the DRC President Felix Tshisekedi decided Wednesday to ask its government to "suspend all protocol agreements, agreements and conventions" concluded with Rwanda.

The DRC closed its borders with Rwanda in the South Kivu province (eastern DRC) from 3 pm till 6 am starting Friday after a Congolese soldier was shot dead by the Rwandan army inside Rwandan territory earlier that day. The Rwandan side accused the Congolese soldier of having fired indiscriminately at Rwandan security personnel and civilians.

ALSO READ: UN voices concern over security in DRC

The two neighbors share complicated relations since the Rwanda genocide in 1994, as Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide arrived in eastern DRC. President Tshisekedi and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame have attempted to mend the fences by signing three cooperation deals in 2021.

It is already an open secret that Kinshasa has been upset about Kigali's alleged support of M23 for a long time, but President Tshisekedi has been cautious not to mention Rwanda by name.  In early June, President Tshisekedi cut to the chase in his first public remarks about the alleged Rwanda-M23 collusion, asserting that there was "no doubt" that Rwanda was backing the M23 on the Congolese territory.

According to the Congolese government statement released Friday, President Tshisekedi went even further by stating that Rwanda is after DRC's land and metal resources.

"The security situation in the east of the country continues to deteriorate, and fundamentally because Rwanda seeks to occupy our land, rich in gold, coltan, and cobalt, for their own exploitation and profit," the statement quoted President Tshisekedi as saying. "This is an economic war for the battle of resources, fought by Rwanda's terrorist gangs."

READ MORE: DRC accuses Rwanda of sending disguised troops across border

Kigali has not yet made any direct comment on Kinshasa's latest accusations.

Amid all the tiffs and tit-for-tat, regional mediation has been in motion with a possible tete-a-tete between the two presidents in Angola, under the mediation of the Angolan President Joao Lourenco, in an attempt to bury the hatchet and restore the fragile peace in eastern DRC.

To this day, however, the meeting is still pending as neither of the two countries has yet confirmed or announced any detail of the rendezvous.

"I commend The efforts of President Lourenco. The Rwandan government has accepted the principle of a meeting between the three heads of state in Luanda and a first proposal for the date. We are waiting for the DRC to confirm. It is a matter of weeks," said Biruta, the Rwandan foreign minister, in an interview with the French magazine Jeune Afrique published Friday.