The war against the rebel Forces démocratique pour la libération de Rwanda (FDLR), based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was not over, despite last week's withdrawal of Rwandan troops from the Congo's North Kivu province, officials said.
“We shall not rest, the fighting is still on," Rosemary Musemenali, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, said in the capital, Kigali.
The Rwandan troops' withdrawal came after nearly two months of joint military operations with the DRC against the FDLR, which is largely blamed for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Although thousands more FDLR rebels remain elusive, Musemenali said, improved political cooperation between Rwanda and the DRC had been instrumental in the battle against the group.
She added that although most FDLR combatants had been routed out of North Kivu, many of their sponsors and accomplices remained at large, especially in Europe and the US.
Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for the Rwanda-Congo military operations, said at least 5,000 Rwandans, mainly civilians, had been repatriated from eastern Congo since January. Most had been held hostage by the FDLR militias.
“The operations have greatly weakened the FDLR; they are now incapable of sustaining war,” Hamuli said.
He said the FDLR rebels had been routed out of strongholds in mining areas such as Walikale and Masisi, both in North Kivu. Aid agencies have accused the FDLR of dealing in illegal mineral trading to finance their warfare.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that up to 50,000 Rwandans remained in exile since the genocide, most in eastern Congo where they have been assimilated into the local population.
Analysts said the recent military operation against the FDLR was surprising, since Rwanda and the DRC have had stormy political relations for nearly two decades. Rwandan military sources say continued cooperation could be a pointer to lasting peace in the troubled North Kivu province.
"It's a rare cooperation but we have no reason to doubt their [Congolese] commitment; in the past, you would expect the Kinshasa government to send in rescue helicopters for the FDLR thugs," a Rwandan military commander, who requested anonymity, said.
When operations against the FDLR intensified in February, the rebels turned on the locals in reprisal attacks, forcing thousands of Congolese to flee to neighbouring countries, according to Venessa Akello, UNHCR public relations officer in Uganda.
She said 7,364 refugees had entered Uganda from North Kivu since the operation against the FDLR began in January.
Jean Sayinzoga, chairman of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission, said returnees were screened and ex-combatants separated from civilians for resettlement.
He said the ex-combatants first underwent rehabilitation at various centres in Rwanda's Northern and Western provinces to prepare them for a new life. Adults were separated from former child soldiers and both groups counselled, given skills and taught values for a new life, Sayinzoga added.
However, those accused of participating in the 1994 genocide were expected to face trail, which has prevented many FDLR combatants from returning.
"They can't get all of us, we run around in circles and then we will come back,” Innocent Karega, FDLR spokesman, was quoted as saying recently.
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