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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June 2004, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
The threat to DR Congo's peace
By Robert Walker
BBC, Kigali

A year after the signing in of the transitional government raised hopes of peace, the threat of civil war has returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

General Laurent Nkunda in Bukavu
It is unclear whether Nkunda was acting alone
The fall of Bukavu earlier this month to renegade soldiers, led by Gen Laurent Nkunda, clearly exposed the weakness of DR Congo's transitional institutions, and for many Congolese, also the inability of UN peacekeepers to protect the peace process.

While the dissident general has withdrawn his forces from Bukavu, the crisis continues.

The government says Gen Nkunda must face justice for launching his rebellion and for crimes committed against civilians during it. Up to 10,000 government troops are reported to have been deployed to strategic towns in the east, raising fears of fresh fighting between loyalist and dissident troops.

It appears President Joseph Kabila now wants to assert his authority over the mineral rich parts of the country which were controlled by the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma rebel group during the civil war.

"Troops are being deployed to deter Gen Nkunda from expanding his operations and to make it more difficult for him to garner support," said an international observer in Kinshasa.

Power struggles

Underlying the recent fighting, is the failure to create a genuinely unified national army. RCD-Goma fighters, along other with other former rebels, have in theory now joined the new Congolese armed forces.

But some of the former belligerents making up the transitional government have tried to keep their old armies intact, as insurance in case the peace process falters and as a lever in power struggles within the government.

Analysts say that both the presidency and RCD-Goma have at times operated parallel lines of command over the troops loyal to them.

Five years
Seven foreign armies
At least 3 million dead
Disease and abuses widespread

This political competition in Kinshasa has been played out violently in the east.

The fight for Bukavu at the beginning of June was the latest in a series of clashes between government soldiers and those loyal to former RCD commanders who have refused to submit to the authority of the new army.

Gen Nkunda, who claimed to have up to 4,000 troops when he took Bukavu, remains at large.

If the government re-enforcements now deployed to the east move against his forces, other former RCD-Goma rebel commanders, supposedly integrated into the national army, must choose between supporting their one time comrade in arms or backing Kinshasa. So far many have been slow to condemn Gen Nkunda's rebellion.

This has raised questions about the commitment to the peace process of some senior figures in the RCD-Goma; and prompted fears of a return to full scale civil war between the former rebels and the government.

But while President Kabila wants to assert government authority, the fall of Bukavu underscored embarrassing weaknesses in his army's capacity to act against recalcitrant commanders.

Failure of the transitional government to deal with the continuing threat posed by Gen Nkunda would set a clear precedent for other disgruntled rebels seeking to carve out a new power base.

Eastern shadow

There are growing concerns that fresh fighting in the east between loyalist and dissident forces could spark a new regional conflict. DR Congo's five-year civil war, which ended last year, sucked in six neighbouring countries.

Of all DR Congo's neighbours, it is Rwanda which still casts the longest shadow over eastern DR Congo. The fall of Bukavu has been followed by an escalating war of words between Kigali and Kinshasa.

DR Congo claimed Rwandan troops were behind Gen Nkunda's take-over of the town. Rwanda in turn says the recent deployment of Congolese forces to the east is a hostile act.

Congolese fleeing Bukavu
More than 30,000 people have fled the recent fighting, say officials
Rwanda invaded DR Congo in 1996 and 1998, saying it wanted out flush out Hutu militias who fled to DR Congo after the Rwandan genocide.

And Kigali says that Kinshasa is again supplying the Hutu rebels with arms, increasing the threat they pose to Rwanda. Rwanda declares itself ready to return if the Congolese government fails to deal with the rebels.

But the capacity of the Hutu militias to launch significant military operations against Rwanda now appears limited.

"They don't represent at all a serious threat. They're in no shape to take on Rwanda," says a UN official familiar with the rebels.

This leads other analysts to suggest Rwanda is exaggerating its security concerns while pursuing economic and strategic interests in its mineral rich neighbour. UN reports have accused Rwanda of continued illegal exploitation of resources in eastern DR Congo.

But concrete proof of Rwandan military support to Gen Nkunda's insurgency has so far been lacking.

Whatever the true extent of Rwandan designs, the efforts of Congolese politicians to emphasise the external threat also serve to deflect attention from their own failures, as next year's elections draw closer.

Establishing functioning civilian administrations in eastern DR Congo has been just as slow as building a new army. Despite the huge riches in the region, and funds promised by the international community, there has been little progress in rebuilding infrastructure and services destroyed in the war.

In any further fighting it will again be civilians of eastern DR Congo who will be the losers. An estimated 3 million people were killed during the last civil war, most from famine and disease.

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