GOMA, Congo (AP) — Rebels in eastern Congo said Tuesday they are getting ready to fight a new United Nations brigade that will be allowed for the first time to pursue armed groups.
The U.N. peacekeepers are set to arrive in the coming months, with a mandate that goes beyond merely protecting civilians.
The rebels' threat comes as peace talks appear to have reached a dead end between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels who seized the provincial capital of Goma late last year and held it for two weeks.
"We are waiting for the brigade; we are ready. Our men are on maximum alert," said Stanislas Baleke, an official with the M23's political branch.
The M23 already has issued threats to South Africa and Tanzania, both contributing troops to the U.N. intervention brigade, warning them that the M23 will not hesitate to fight back if the brigade attacks them.
The U.N. Security Council recently renewed the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo known as MONUSCO for one year but also allowed for the creation of a special unit now expected to arrive on the ground before July.
The new brigade's mandate will allow it to carry out targeted offensive operations against armed groups in Congo's troubled east, unlike previous peacekeeping missions that only allowed the U.N. forces to protect civilians.
During a visit to Goma on Tuesday, U.N. special envoy Mary Robinson said efforts must also continue to resolve the political impasse.
"The intervention brigade must play a role of deterrent rather than a military solution. The real focus is on the framework agreement for a political solution," said Robinson, the former president of Ireland and U.N. human rights chief who has been appointed to oversee implementation of a peace deal in Congo.
Congo's mineral-rich eastern region has been unstable, and often engulfed in fighting, since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda. More than two dozen different armed groups are currently operating in the area. The gravest threat, though, has been posed by the formation of the M23 rebel group one year ago.
M23 is led by fighters from a now-defunct rebel group who agreed to put down their arms on March 23, 2009, in return for being allowed to join the Congolese army. The rebellion began last April, when hundreds of soldiers defected from the military, saying the accord had not been respected.
In November, the peacekeepers stood by as the M23 rebels seized the provincial capital of Goma. The rebels eventually withdrew from the city two weeks later. But the fall of Goma shocked the international community, opening the path for the creation of the brigade.
The new U.N. brigade's mandate is a strong departure from the usually cautious U.N. approach to peacekeeping. But with more than 25 armed groups in the Kivu region alone, the brigade of about 3,000 risks being spread thin, say experts.
Jason Stearns, a researcher at the Rift Valley Institute, said he was skeptical that the additional soldiers "will be good against some of the most battle-hardened militia" such as the M23 and another rebel group known as the FDLR.
MONUSCO officials acknowledge that the brigade will have to target specific armed groups to be efficient, though they stop short of saying that the M23 will be the priority for the special unit.
Following the U.N. resolution in March, the Congolese government asked the rebels to dismantle their movement or they will be the target of the U.N. brigade.
"There are many armed groups in the east. If the brigade focuses on the M23, it means that the international community has taken sides in the conflict and wants to stir it," says Baleke, the M23 political cadre.
The brigade's mandate to attack also raises some questions about U.N. neutrality. U.N. and MONUSCO staff are concerned about their safety, fearing that the rebels confuse the brigade's troops with the entire U.N. contingent in Congo.
The showdown between the M23 and the MONUSCO already intensified earlier this month when the rebels blocked a dozen U.N. vehicles transporting material in Bunagana. In Rutshuru, another town in rebel territory, the M23 has tried to mobilize the population against the intervention brigade.
"The rebels want to force us to demonstrate against the new U.N. force, but we refused because the force is coming to liberate us," says Charly, a 20-year-old student from Rutshuru, who gave only his first name fearing reprisals from the rebels.
Residents of Rutshuru accuse M23 rebels of carrying out several targeted killings and arrests of people suspected to be against the movement.
Talks between the rebels and the government that were underway in Uganda have stalled, and both delegations pulled out most of their representatives last week.
"We received the government's proposal for a peace deal, but it did not take into account our suggestions. We have decided to come back to Bunagana to discuss our answer, but we have left a few representatives in Kampala (where the talks are taking place)," said Baleke. "We are still open to negotiations."