The Government of Rwanda this week accused the UN Group of Experts (GoE) on the Congo of “bad faith” following the publication of a new document linking Kigali to the M23 rebels, who have seized parts of DRC’s eastern North Kivu province.
The GoE is led by Steve Hege, widely viewed in Kigali as having an extremely benign view of the Congo-based FLDR genocidal outfit – mainly composed of the perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi – with a profound resentment for the Rwandan leadership who he described as “Ugandan Tutsi elite” in one of his past publications.
Quoting anonymous sources, including those they described as M23 deserters, former Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), as well as Congolese military officers and politicians, claim that Rwanda was actively involved in recent M23 successes on the battlefield, including the capture of Bunagana, a strategic town close to Uganda.
The Group also cites “fresh graves” at the Kanombe military cemetery which its members witnessed during a site visit on July 25, concluding that the graves were for RDF soldiers who had recently died while fighting in the M23 rebellion.
“When the Group inquired about the graves, RDF officers stated that peacekeepers had recently been killed in Darfur. The Group notes, however, that there have been no deceased RDF peacekeepers in Darfur since March 2012,” the GoE “update” to the Security Council reads in part.
However, the Government has rebutted the claim, with names of some of the peacekeepers who were buried at the cemetery between June 30 and July 24.
“Were he (Hege) or his colleagues serious about verifying their increasingly outlandish claims, Mr Hege would have discovered that a burial ceremony had taken place the previous day, July 24, for a returned soldier from Darfur, Lieutenant Vincent Mirenge,” the Government said in a statement. It also named two other fallen peacekeepers who were laid to rest in the same place. “Sergeant Jean Claude Tubanambazi, who had also been deployed in Darfur, was buried at Kanombe on 13th July 2012.
Sergeant-Major Jackson Muhanguzi, who had served as a peacekeeper in South Sudan, was buried on 30th June 2012 Kanombe barracks”.
The Government also wondered whether gunfire was the only cause of the death of its soldiers or veterans.
Kigali further challenged claims that an RDF uniform was recovered by the Congolese army (FARDC) on the DRC side of the border. “Firstly, there have been a significant number of RDF troops in the DRC since 2009 until very recently conducting joint operations with the FARDC…Secondly, each RDF uniform contains unique identifiers: the soldier’s name, rank and serial number. Why is this not provided”?
The Government also challenged allegations that an RDF military ID was found in the DRC. “The ID is not only a forgery, it is transparently so. To begin with, it contains a rather glaring typo – the French word defense is spelled defence”.
In the document, the UN experts also accuse M23 of committing violations of international law, citing a local chief in Rutshuru who was allegedly tortured and killed by rebel commanders for resisting their recruitment drive. They also accuse the rebels of recruiting child soldiers in their ranks. M23 have previously rejected such claims.
Addressing journalists in Kigali on Monday, the head of the US office of Global Criminal Justice, Amb. Stephen Rapp, said there was no evidence the rebels – who mutinied in April – had committed war crimes. “To date, in terms of mass killings, rapes and atrocities, I do not see evidence of M23 having engaged in that level”.
In its response to the latest allegations, Kigali said, “The problem for the Group of Experts is that, in a rush to repair damage to its reputation, it has produced an extremely shoddy piece of work; a report of such dubious quality that it raises troubling questions about the Group’s professionalism, objectivity and capacity to offer meaningful advice to the Security Council.
“It is fair to expect that calls for Mr Hege to step aside will increase in volume and frequency over coming days, and not just from Rwanda.”
Ibuka, a Genocide survivors umbrella, last week petitioned the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to remove Hege from the GoE, citing his questionable credibility and soft spot for the Genocide perpetrators.
The Group first accused Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels in an addendum to an interim report to the UN Sanctions Committee on June 21, 2012. But there has since been growing outrage over Hege’s perceived bias against Rwanda largely based on publications he authored long before he was appointed the GoE coordinator.
Hege, who was appointed to head the seven-member panel on June 25, 2010, has previously authored papers portraying the FDLR militia as victims and Kigali as perpetrators of war crimes. In an article he wrote in 2009, he suggested that international opinion would ultimately “sour on Rwanda”, to give FDLR a political advantage.
In one article, “Understanding the FDLR in the DR Congo: Key facts on the disarmament & repatriation of Rwandan rebels”, published by Peace Appeal Foundation, on February 24, 2009, Hege wrote: “The FDLR must be viewed in light of the regional history of armed rebellions formed by refugees and/or political exiles who have eventually taken power back from undemocratic regimes”.
He added: “The FDLR have not constituted a military threat to Rwanda for over five years…The FDLR would rather wait for political negotiations when international opinion eventually sours on the Rwandan regime”.
FDLR commander Sylvestre Mudacumura was recently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for atrocities committed by the militia, which was blacklisted by the US and a regional inter-state platform, Tripartite Plus, as a terrorist organisation.
In that addendum, the GoE alleged that the presence in the armory of the M23 rebels of a particular 75mm canon must have been supplied by Rwanda since there were no such weapons in the possession of the FARDC.
However, reports later emerged that a 2008 UN Group of Experts Report had indicated that a canon fitting the same description had been stolen by then CNDP rebels from the FARDC.
In the report of the Group of Experts on the DRC to the UN Security Council, dated December 12, 2008, on page six, they wrote: “The Group believes that CNDP captures most of its weapons and ammunition during offensives against FARDC. It seized large weapons stocks at Kikuku and Mushaki in December 2007 and during two subsequent attacks on Rumangabo in October 2008. In September 2008, CNDP looted the Katsiro weapon depot. To transport the arms, CNDP needed four trucks, each with the capacity to carry sixmetric tons.
“They obtained seven 82 mm mortars, four 60 mm mortars, one 75 mm recoilless rocket launcher, eight heavy machine guns, one 14 mm mortar, 22 rocket-propelled grenades, 130 AK-47 assault rifles, and ammunition for the mortars and rifles. On 8 October 2008 in Rumangabo, CNDP reportedly captured two multiple rocket launchers and various other heavy weapons”.
This finding corroborated with Rwanda’s rebuttal which stated the ammunition which it was accused of supplying to M23 rebels had been destroyed way back in 2008, and that, contrary to the impression created by the Hege-led Group, the Congolese army was in possession of the said ammunition as found out by Rwanda troops during their recent joint operations with FARDC.
The M23 fighters, largely composed of the former CNDP and PARECO rebels, mutinied in April accusing Kinshasa of reneging on a 2009 Rwanda-brokered peace deal under which they had been integrated into the national army.
Allegations of Rwandan links with the rebels have since resulted in some donor countries delaying or cutting aid to Kigali.
Last week, an extra-ordinary Summit of Heads of State from the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), hosted by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, mandated Defence ministers from seven member states to come up with a viable solution to the crisis within two weeks.