KAMPALA, Uganda — Sixteen Rwandan students are seeking asylum in Uganda, saying they are the victims of harassment by security officials back home for refusing to join a Congolese rebel movement that allegedly recruits inside Rwandan territory.
The allegations are the latest sign that the Rwandan government is the not-so-secret backer of the M23 rebel group in Congo, which the government of President Paul Kagame consistently denies despite a U.N. report that cited evidence to the contrary.
The 14 men and two women say they fled Rwanda on June 3, ending weeks of what they say was harassment by officials who targeted them for dodging a “political awareness program” in Butare, a town 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the capital.
Two of the fleeing students said in interviews that they resisted going there because most of their friends who went there never came back. They said their classmates were forced to cross the border and fight alongside M23, one of many rebel groups operating in Congo’s troubled North Kivu province.
“We told them that we are too young to join M23 but they did not listen,” said Moses Mugisha, 21. “They threatened us. We can’t go back to Rwanda. We are very scared.”
The 16 who refused to go to the “Ingando” program say their high school examination results were withheld by authorities as a result. Under Ingando, thousands of Rwandan students take part each year in what the government calls solidarity camps, locations across the country where they are lectured on what it means to be Rwandan.
Frank Mugambage, Rwanda’s ambassador to Uganda, said he had nothing to say on this matter. He was quoted in Rwandan state-owned media as saying the students’ results were confiscated because they cheated on an exam and that it was “unfortunate for young people to resort to blackmail.”
Aloysie Cyanzayire, a Rwandan official who holds the office of government ombudsman, did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
The students said they entered Uganda though a crossing in the bush and then took a bus to the capital, Kampala, where for days they were in the custody of Ugandan police.
Ibn Senkumbi, a spokesman for Ugandan police, said police had taken steps protect the Rwandans even as it was impossible to verify their claims.
This week they will be taken to a refugee camp, according to Senkumbi, who said the students reported in their statement to police that Rwanda’s government was “witch-hunting” them.
Rwanda faces international pressure to stop what a report last year by a U.N. panel of experts said was its direct support for M23, a charge denied by the government.
M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009.