Slow start revives doubts about Congo campaign against Rwandan rebels

By Aaron Ross KASHUGA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The government soldiers manning an outpost high above the town of Kashuga have a panoramic view of the hills and valleys of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, home to hundreds of Rwandan Hutu rebels their government has promised to crush. But three weeks after Congo's army launched an offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the outpost's commander has received no orders to attack the rebel group. Just a few hundred meters away across the Mweso River are the hills where the rebels - whose 1,400 fighters include the remnants of militia involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide - have their hideouts, local people say. "There is no war," said the commander of the hill-top camp, a huddle of tents where soldiers drift around aimlessly. "Here, near us, there are no operations." The faltering start to the highly-anticipated campaign in North Kivu province has revived doubts about the will and capacity of Congo's army to defeat a group at the heart of two decades of conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region. Many analysts believe that defeating the FDLR is critical to breaking a catastrophic cycle of violence in eastern Congo, whose rich deposits of gold, tin and tantalum and vast ungoverned spaces have invited meddling by its more powerful neighbors. Since fleeing into eastern Congo after the genocide, FDLR gunmen have waged periodic war with the government and other armed groups. Their presence on Congolese soil has served as pretext for a series of military interventions by Rwanda. The rebels portray themselves as defenders of Hutu refugees in Congo and say they wish to return to Rwanda through a negotiated settlement with Kigali. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) says that their covert purpose appears to be the overthrow of the Rwandan government. Millions died of conflict, hunger and disease during a 1998 to 2003 war in Congo, fueled by Rwandan intervention, and the region remains plagued by dozens of armed militias. Previous campaigns against the FDLR, including operations in 2009 backed by Rwandan and U.N. forces, weakened but failed to dismantle the group. TOWNS RECAPTURED The army commander in eastern Congo, General Leon Mushale, says it has recovered more than two dozen towns since late February. He said about 182 FDLR fighters have either surrendered, been killed or captured. Yet farmers along the road to Kashuga said the FDLR acts with impunity, descending on their fields in gangs of up to 50 to extort food and transport. The army, meanwhile, has announced the capture of only one senior rebel leader. The slow progress has reinforced doubts among many analysts about the government’s will to take on the group. Reports by U.N. panels of experts have documented commercial ties between FARDC elements and the FDLR. The two forces have also collaborated in the past against Rwandan-backed rebels. The Enough Project, an advocacy group, has estimated that the FDLR earns more than $30 million a year from the illicit charcoal trade. The group is also involved in the smuggling of gold and other minerals and receives financing from overseas networks, according to the U.N. experts. "Senior members of the security establishment have not been entirely cooperative – let’s put it that way – with the operations and still maintain contacts with FDLR leadership," said Jason Stearns, director of the Congo Research Group at New York University and a former U.N. expert in Congo. Fidel Bafilemba, a researcher for Enough in the lakeside capital of North Kivu province, Goma, said the FDLR is politically useful for Congo President Joseph Kabila. "The policy is to keep the FDLR as long as possible in eastern Congo because if it's gone Kabila himself will no longer have an alibi to not provide the basics to his people – water, education, food, security," he said. Kabila came to power in 2001 following the assassination of his father and went on to win disputed elections in 2006 and 2011. He is barred by the constitution from standing for a third elected term in an election scheduled for next year, but critics suspect him of seeking to prolong his time in office, provoking violent protests in January that killed at least 40 people. The Rwandan-backed M23 rebellion, which waged an insurrection for two years before reaching a peace agreement with the government in 2013, previously posed the biggest security threat in the east. During the conflict, the U.N. Group of Experts documented low-level collaboration between the Congolese army and FDLR. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Logistical challenges could also be slowing progress in the current campaign. The army is fighting without the support of MONUSCO after a row over suspected rights abuses by two Congolese commanders led the United Nations to suspend involvement. U.N. officials said their logistical support, ranging from millions of pounds of rations to thousands of gallons of fuel, is crucial. "The Congolese have pushed the FDLR back out of certain areas," a senior U.N. Security Council diplomat said. "But in the absence of MONUSCO support are they going to be able to sustain it for more than a couple of weeks?” The army insists it has adequate provisions and attributes the slow pace on the ground to the challenges of fighting an enemy deeply embedded in local communities. But a police officer said soldiers operating in Rutshuru territory were being forced to pull back from combat zones to larger towns at night for lack of supplies, leaving the population vulnerable to reprisals by the rebels. "In the past, there have been (logistical) improvements, but I think there are still concerns that they’re not fully able to support their troops in the field," said Daniel Fahey, who served as coordinator of the U.N. panel of experts last year. With the FDLR’s fighters mostly avoiding combat and instead retreating deeper into eastern Congo’s dense forests, the army says it is methodically squeezing the enemy. One army source, who asked not to be named, said that when his unit assaulted a refugee camp in northern Masisi this month, FDLR fighters hid among the civilian population. "The fighters fled first, then their families," he said. "We couldn’t attack their families so we just left a few observers behind." The limited operation thus far has spared the region the humanitarian crisis witnessed during the 2009 offensives, which displaced around a million people. Rwanda, which has cited the threat of the Hutu rebels to justify a series of incursions into Congolese territory and railed against delays in launching the latest operation earlier this year, has remained mostly silent since fighting began late last month. But some residents fear the tepid campaign might leave them in the worst possible situation – facing an angry and vengeful, but not substantially weakened, FDLR. In Mweso, where the senior FDLR commander was arrested, many locals said that they were facing blowback, including pillaging and threats over alleged collaboration with the army. Theopil Bahati, a resident, said he welcomed the operations but had learned from past experience not to get his hopes up: “I don’t think this will be the end of the FDLR.” (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Angus MacSwan)