GOMA, DRC // UN peacekeepers are preparing for a backlash of Hutu militia attacks on villagers in eastern Congo after last week's withdrawal of Rwandan troops from this grief-stricken region. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who wrapped up talks with Rwandan and Congolese leaders in central Africa yesterday, warned of a power vacuum emerging in North Kivu that could further jeopardise citizens' lives.
Mr Ban's comments came after the withdrawal of Rwandan soldiers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and amid fears of further attacks from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). "We must not allow such a kind of security vacuum by allowing the FDLR - or any other armed groups - to retake" their positions, Mr Ban told reporters after meeting the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, in Kisangani, in north-central Congo, on Saturday.
The FDLR, a 6,500-strong Hutu militia alleged to be responsible for atrocities in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, has already launched minor reprisal attacks against Congolese villagers following the Rwandan withdrawal. The Congolese national army had previously forced the FDLR into retreat through a joint operation with Rwandan troops, although officials estimate that only about 180 members of the Hutu fighting force were eradicated during the surge.
"The concern is what happens next now the Rwandans have left," said Ross Mountain, the UN's deputy special representative in the DRC. "We have the FDLR mostly moved into the bush and, of course, come back. They have exacted, in a number of cases, reprisals against the civilian population." Mr Ban said joint operations between forces from Rwanda and the DRC, which were formerly enemies, presented "newly created opportunities" for peace in war-ravaged eastern Congo, but serious concerns remain over the safety of civilians.
Congolese national forces have a poor track record in tackling the 22 rebel groups in North Kivu; the UN peacekeeping force, known by its French acronym, Monuc, has been likewise accused of failing to prevent atrocities. Mr Mountain admitted that Monuc, despite being the world's largest UN peacekeeping force with 17,000 members, was unable to protect Congolese citizens across a territory the size of western Europe.
"There is no way in the world we are going to be behind every banana tree," Mr Mountain told journalists aboard a flight through thick Congolese cloud cover. "This is just simply impossible for us to be able to prevent all these exactions." Similar concerns were echoed across the region. Tanzania's minister for foreign affairs and international co-operation, Bernard Membe, called for a beefed-up Monuc presence to thwart the anticipated FDLR resurgence.
And Marcel Stoessel, who heads Oxfam's mission in Congo, said in a statement: "The next few months are likely to be even more dangerous for civilians as the offensive expands." Eastern Congo has seen thousands die in atrocities committed by both rebel and government forces, which have forced a further 800,000 to flee their homes. This adds to the woes of a country that sees 1,500 Congolese die every day from poverty and diseases like malaria, Ebola and the plague.
Monuc's force commander, Gen Babacar Gaye, described the difficulty of eradicating the FDLR, which lives among civilians and funds its operations by mining in mineral-rich Congo. "They will not deep-trench and carry out a classic battle against you - they will melt into the bush," Gen Gaye said. "It is a long-term process. We need to smother them and cut their lifelines." UN peacekeepers are further concerned by the Congolese government's apparent reluctance to co-operate with Monuc, after Mr Kabila's failure to inform the world body about launching joint operations with Rwanda last month.
After meeting with the Congolese leader, Mr Ban said: "Close collaboration between the government and Monuc is especially important to stabilise the east and protect the population. "Monuc's mandate is to support, not to substitute for, action by Congolese authorities and institutions." The secretary general's meeting with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, in Kigali yesterday brought an end to his four-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa. His nine-day trip is due to end today in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, where he attends the international pledging conference to rebuild Gaza after Israel's offensive against Hamas.