(Reuters) – Rwanda said on Wednesday the decision by a U.N. intervention brigade to forcibly disarm people in a strategic zone of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo had surprised African leaders and risked jeopardizing peace talks.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission said on Tuesday it was setting up a security zone around Goma, which briefly fell into M23 hands last year, and would disarm, by force if needed, anyone carrying weapons after a 48-hour grace period.
“We’re worried that such a threat could have easily derailed the peace talks going on in Kampala,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told reporters at a regional summit, speaking in English.
Mushikiwabo, whose country is widely believed to support the M23 rebellion, said leaders at the summit in Nairobi expressed their strong support for negotiations held in Uganda between Democratic Republic ofCongo and M23 rebels.
Some diplomats, however, say the talks have stalled.
Rwanda denies backing M23. It has also alleged that commanders of the newly deployed special force with a mandate to neutralize armed groups like M23 have met with Rwandan Hutu rebels camped in eastern Congo’s borderlands.
The M23 rebels began taking large swathes of Congo’s volatile east early last year, accusing the central government of failing to honor a previous peace deal, and dealt a serious blow to the image of the U.N. MONUSCO peacekeepers.
The brief fall of Goma to the rebels prompted the formation of a more robust intervention brigade within MONUSCO.
MONUSCO said on Wednesday the security zone operation would not amount to an offensive targeting a specific armed group.
“This zone is to protect civilians,” said Lieutenant Colonel Prosper Basse, MONUSCO’s military spokesman.
Another U.N. source told Reuters the operation would try to clear up small pockets of M23 fighters who remained near Goma after the rebels were pushed several kilometers further north during recent clashes.
The latest flare-up in fighting between Congolese government forces and M23 earlier this month raised tensions again with Rwanda after Congo accused Rwandan specialist units of aiding M23 in the fighting.
“The renewed fighting raises concern over the commitment of the parties to the (Kampala) talks,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told the summit. “We want them to resume and conclude quickly.”
The M23 rebels are demanding an amnesty and reintegration into the national army, as well as political concessions. Some delegates at the Nairobi summit said privately that a wide gulf still separated the two sides.
Rwanda on Tuesday dismissed U.S. charges it was supporting the rebellion, telling Reuters at the summit that leveling such accusations was unhelpful.
Congo’s foreign minister, Raymond Tshibanda, said, however, that the fact that the conflict was taking place in the east, far from the capital, “showed the importance of external factors to the conflict.”
By Richard Lough
(Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa; editing by Mike Collett-White)