The United States tells Rwanda and Congo they must ‘walk back from the brink of war’

Robert Wood, deputy permanent representative of the United States, to the United Nations speaks to delegates during a security council meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

Robert Wood, deputy permanent representative of the United States, to the United Nations speaks to delegates during a security council meeting at the United Nations Headquarters, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States told Rwanda and Congo on Tuesday that they “must walk back from the brink of war,” the sharpest warning yet of a looming conflict between the African neighbors.

U.S. deputy ambassador Robert Wood delivered the warning at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by France as violence has worsened in Congo’s mineral-rich east which borders Rwanda.

Wood said Rwanda and Congo, along with “regional actors,” should immediately resume diplomatic talks. “These regional diplomatic efforts, not military conflict, are the only path toward a negotiated solution and sustainable peace,” he stressed.

The U.S. warning follows the Rwandan Foreign Ministry’s rejection on Monday of U.S. calls for the withdrawal of its troops and surface-to-air missile systems from eastern Congo.

The U.S. State Department on Saturday also criticized the worsening violence caused by M23, a “Rwanda-backed” armed group.

The Rwanda ministry’s statement said its troops are defending Rwandan territory as Congo carries out a “dramatic military build-up” near the border.

The ministry spoke of threats to Rwandan national security stemming from the presence in Congo of an armed group whose members include alleged perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in which more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus who tried to protect them were killed.

The rebel group, known by its initials FDLR, “is fully integrated into” the Congolese army, the statement said. Although Rwanda has long cited a threat posed by FLDR, authorities there had never admitted to a military presence in eastern Congo.

Congolese authorities accuse the central African country of actively supporting M23.

Congo’s U.N. Ambassador Zenon Ngay Mukongo urged the Security Council to demand that Rwanda withdraw its troops from the country without pre-conditions, and halt all support for M23.

He accused Rwanda’s army of illegally occupying part of the eastern province of North Kivu, and of providing support to M23 to destabilize Congo and “to pillage our riches, our wealth in ore and minerals” in the east.

Mukongo told the council that no attack by the FDLR from Congolese territory has been recorded against Rwanda for more than two decades. As for Rwanda’s fears of genocide, he said its minority Tutsis hold power over the majority Hutus, and that will never happen in Congo which he said has hundreds of tribes, “and we live together.”

He stressed that Tutsis in Congo are Congolese, and “the problems of the Congolese Tutsis will be resolved in the Congo by Congolese.”

“So you stay home!,” Mukongo said, as Rwanda’s U.N. Ambassador Ernest Rwamucyo, sat across from him at the Security Council’s horseshoe-shaped table.

Rwamucyo said the integration of the “genocidal FDLR” into the Congolese army is government policy and a great concern to his country.

This alliance continues to target innocent Kinyarwanda speaking Tutsis with violence, hate speech and murders, he said.

“We are at the brink of a very serious catastrophe in the region as a result of this,” he said, warning of another possible genocide.

The recent escalation of the conflict in eastern Congo is taking place in the context of calls by the presidents of Congo and Burundi for regime change in Rwanda, Rwamucyo said.

To solve the complex security challenges in the region, he said, “a non-negotiable requirement” is ending Congo’s support for the FDLR and ensuring the armed group’s demobilization and repatriation to Rwanda.

Fighting near Goma, the region’s largest city, has intensified in recent days as M23 rebels threatened to take over the metropolis. Residents of the nearby town of Sake have been fleeing fierce fighting between Congolese government troops and the group.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière condemned M23’s recent offensive against Sake and Rwanda’s support for M23 and its presence on Ciongolese territory. “This must end,” he said, stressing that “a threshold has been crossed” by its deployment of anti-aircraft systems in Congo.

Wood, the U.S. deputy ambassador, urged the international community to take immediate steps to end the fighting and de-escalate tensions between Congo and Rwanda.

Millions of people face a grave humanitarian crisis and the scale of displacement, human rights abuses and gender based violence is “appalling,” he said.

Eastern Congo already had one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with nearly 6 million people previously displaced because of conflict, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. There are concerns a new disaster could largely go unnoticed because of the attention on the war in Gaza and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Wood echoed U.S. calls for M23 to immediate halt attacks and withdraw from the area, and for Rwanda to end its support for the armed group and immediately withdraw its forces and missile systems from Congo.