The arrest of Laurent Nkunda, the Congolese rebel leader, by his erstwhile allies in Rwanda marks a dramatic turn in relations between Congo and its tiny but militarily powerful neighbour.
By Barney Jopson in Nairobi
Mr Nkunda was detained on Rwandan soil on Thursday night after putting up resistance to an unprecedented joint military operation by the Rwandan and Congolese armies designed to pacify eastern Congo, officials from both states said.
The operation was the result of intense, secretive talks and appears to have taken United Nations peacekeepers by surprise. Talks in Nairobi between the Congolese government and Mr Nkunda’s rebels have been sidelined. The UN said last night it had postponed the next session due to “recent developments”.
“Nkunda’s arrest is part of a larger regional political realignment,” said Jason Stearns, former co-ordinator of a UN panel that investigated arms trafficking to Congo. “Instead of supporting rebel groups in eastern Congo that are opposed to each other, Rwanda and Congo are now ganging up on them.”
The two countries have a history of conflict and mistrust stemming back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, after which more than 1m Hutus, among them soldiers and militiamen, poured into Congo. A series of wars and proxy wars ensued. Mr Nkunda’s CNDP rebels last year routed government troops and marched to the doors of the regional capital of Goma, threatening to re-ignite a wider regional war.
The countries’ presidents had struck a deal that was “essentially a swap” said one diplomat. “The Rwandans said: ‘We’ll give you the CNDP, and you give us a free hand on the FDLR [a Hutu militia whose leaders are accused of participating in the 1994 genocide and who Congo’s government has been accused of backing]’.”
Mr Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi has been fighting an intermittent insurgency in the east of the country since 2004. It displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and left President Joseph Kabila looking weak, and his army all but defeated. It also embarrassed the Rwandan government, which has twice occupied eastern Congo since the 1994 genocide.
Guillaume Lacaille, analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Rwanda had been chastened in December by a UN report on arms trafficking that said Mr Nkunda’s rebels had used Rwandan territory, Rwandan banks, and allegedly benefited from Rwandan army support. “It was an embarrassment for [president Paul] Kagame himself as he is trying to portray Rwanda as the Singapore of the Great Lakes region