Rwandan Troops Enter Congo

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T.J. Kirkpatrick / Reuters

A soldier with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda walks toward a distribution center near Lushubere camp in Masisi, Congo

Between 1,500 and 2,000 Rwandan troops invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday on a mission sanctioned by the Congolese government to wipe out ethnic Hutu militias. Lambert Mende, Congo's Information Minister, told Reuters that his government had invited the Rwandans onto Congolese soil as "observers" for an offensive against Rwandan Hutu rebels, which was expected to last about two weeks. "The operations are beginning. We have invited Rwandan officers with their security contingents for their safety. They are observers ... The operations to disarm the FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] are planned to last 10 to 15 days," said Mende.

The invasion is perhaps the most dramatic evidence yet that no military force in Congo is capable of resolving the country's problems. The roots of the war in Congo date back to 1994. That was the year the FDLR, which had helped carry out the Rwandan genocide, fled over the border into the hills of eastern Congo. Rwandan forces under the command of Paul Kagame, who would later become Rwanda's President, pursued the FDLR.

But the Rwandans failed to defeat the Hutus, despite several attempts and more invasions, and out of that crucible of conflict came a full-scale war involving a plethora of rebel groups, some Hutu, some Tutsi, some Congolese, some criminal mercenaries — as well as Congo's national army and the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission. In 1997 the rebels of Congo's Laurent Kabila managed to overthrow then President Mobutu Sese Seko and install Kabila as President. Later, Kabila's son Joseph took the reins when his father was assassinated. But none of them managed to end the war in the east. (See pictures of Congo on the brink.)

Last October, the Tutsi rebel group of General Laurent Nkunda — initially formed in 2003 to fight the remnant Hutu genocidaires — advanced to within sight of the main eastern city of Goma and threatened to take the country. With the U.N.'s 17,000 soldiers outnumbered and overwhelmed by the sheer size and difficulty of the terrain it was meant to police — Congo is as big as Western Europe, without the roads — and the poorly paid and ill-disciplined national army disintegrating, little seemed to stand in Nkunda's way. That sounded alarm bells around the world. As well as displacing hundreds of thousands of people, Nkunda's forces are accused of a series of war crimes.

For Rwanda, that's a particular problem. In December an expert's panel report to the U.N. Security Council accused Rwanda of supplying weapons, uniforms and men to Nkunda's rebels. Rwanda's initial response to the allegations was an angry denial. "This report is a calculated move to shift blame away from the government of DRC [Congo] and the international community — both of whom have failed to resolve the conflict in the eastern DRC despite numerous bilateral, regional and international initiatives in the last 14 years," read a Rwandan government statement. Tuesday's invasion can be seen as a follow-up to that argument: Rwanda, frustrated by Congolese and U.N. failure, is now trying to end the war itself, and by the by remove the ostensible reason for Nkunda's rebels to exist.

Will Rwanda succeed? It's certainly a risky plan. Armed interventions in Congo have a history not only of failure but also of sullying those who perpetrate them. In 1998 the war sucked at least six neighboring African countries into what quickly became a smash and grab for Congo's timber and minerals. The U.N. has also had to deal with a series of scandals concerning sex abuse and gun running by its soldiers. The Rwandan mission may be aimed at bringing peace. But they are not coming in peace, and in Congo that has always led to more war.

See pictures of Congo on the brink.

See pictures of the humanitarian disaster in Congo.