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Wednesday, 25 July, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Interahamwe: A spent force?
Rwandan army
The army says it is winning its fight against the rebels
By Helen Vesperini in north-west Rwanda

Military commanders in Rwanda say they are winning the battle against rebels who have posed a constant threat since fleeing after the genocide in 1994.

When the latest round of rebel attacks in Rwanda began, the number of rebels based across the border in eastern Congo was believed to be about 30,000.

Military commanders now reckon they have put nearly half of their fighters out of action.

The Army for the Liberation of Rwanda rebels are split into two groups, Alir 1 and Alir 2. Both are formed from members of the former Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and the Interahamwe militia.

Rwandan genocide victim
The fighters were behind the 1994 massacres

Interahamwe - which translates as "those who work together" - are a mixture of the Hutu extremists who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and boys who were recruited - often forcibly - by hard-liners in the camps in what was Eastern Zaire.

"What I'm sure of is that we have really crippled Alir 1," said a senior Rwandan army commander.

"They have been killed, captured or dispersed, dispersed beyond the capacity to regroup," he said.

Fractured force

He added that Rwandan forces capture between 15 and 20 of those dispersed daily, and they are never in military formations.

Interahamwe prisoner
The fighters are gradually being rounded up

All that is left of Alir 1, he went on, are the units guarding the headquarters and it will be difficult to turn those men into a fighting force.

The Rwandan Army reckons Alir 1 is the tougher of the two armies out to overthrow the government of President Paul Kagame.

"They are the braver fighters anyway because they're the ones who stayed in Eastern Congo and they were further hardened by their attacks on Rwanda from 1997 to 1999," said a senior Rwandan military commander.

The military capacity of Alir 2 will now depend largely on the attitude of the Kinshasa government.

When the late president Laurent Kabila turned against his Rwandan backers, he hit on the idea of recruiting and supplying their arch enemy, the ex-Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR) and the Interahamwe to fight alongside his forces.

Big asset

The highly-disciplined ex-FAR were a big asset to his own ill-disciplined troops. Both the former FAR troops and the hardcore Interahamwe were men with nothing to lose.

Let them come ... we are ready for them

Rwandan commander

"If Kinshasa stops supporting them then they are finished as a force," said a Rwandan commander.

Congolese rebel leaders say that the Kinshasa government foreign minister Leonard She Okitundu has admitted to giving financial support to the Interahamwe.

Captured Interahamwe say they received arms air-dropped to sites in Eastern Congo by the Kinshasa government.

Some arms they received directly, dropped in the countryside; others were attained through their allies, the Congolese tribal militia known as Mai-Mai, at airstrips in South Kivu province.

However, although Alir 1 now seems to all intents and purposes harmless, Alir 2 has been making its way northwards to attack Rwanda.

'Let them come'

"Let them come," said a senior Rwandan commander.

Rwandan soldiers
The Rwandan army says it is ready for Interahamwe

"We are ready for them ... the closer they come, the less time we spend looking for them and the easier it will be to kill them because they'll have walked a long way."

Alir 2 is expected to attack either around the southern Rwandan town of Cyangugu or into southern Rwanda via neighbouring Burundi.

The men of Alir 2 are those who fled the advance of Rwandan and Congolese troops in 1996.

The bulk of them headed westwards, covering thousands of kilometres on foot or by boat to take shelter in Congo-Brazzaville or in Central African Republic.

Many were then active in Katanga before heading northwards.

Given the geography of Eastern Congo, it is also easy to imagine that even if Rwanda defeats Alir 2, some militia will just stay in the forests.

In the words of Lieutenant Dauda Hakizimana, a member of the former Rwandan army captured a few days ago in Rwanda after several years living rough in the bush: "Congo is a big country with very many forests."

See also:

15 Jun 01 | Africa
Rwanda's army battles rebels
07 Jun 01 | Africa
Rwandan army 'kill 150 rebels'
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