— Authorities in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo say their biggest security problem is the Rwandan rebel group FDLR - the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. Observers say Wednesday's statement could signal a thaw in relations between the DRC and Rwanda, which has been accused of supporting the Congolese rebel group M23.
Since M23 launched its rebellion in April, it has been the focus of almost every statement the DRC government has issued about security in the eastern part of the country.
But now, analysts say, the group has been surpassed by members of the FDLR, who are the remnants of Rwandan Hutu forces that fled to Congo in 1994 after many of them took part in the Rwandan genocide.
Marie Shematsi Baeni is communications minister and spokeswoman for the DRC’s North Kivu province, where M23 and the FDLR are concentrated.
Shematsi blames the FDLR for persistent insecurity in the province. "The only reason the province has a multitude of armed groups," she says, "is because everyone is trying to ensure their own security." According to Shematsi, armed groups say that "if they let the FDLR do what they like, they will kill people and rape women."
From 2009 until recently, the FDLR was under heavy pressure from the Congolese Army and the United Nations military mission in Congo, MONUSCO. The United Nations estimates that the FDLR's numbers decreased from as many as 8,000 combatants a few years ago to about 2,500 fighters.
But pressure on the FDLR eased after M23 launched its rebellion. Marie Shematsi Baeni says the FDLR is still a serious threat for the population.
"It may be they are weakened," Shematsi said, "but no one has counted them and can be sure they are now only 2,000 fighters. If there are only 300 of them in a territory, that’s already a lot," she says, "because they are well organized, tough people who have survived great hardship, and if there are only 10 of them in a village that’s a catastrophe."
Shematsi says the FDLR lives off the population and that if villagers resist its demands for food and supplies, they often are killed or raped.
Since 1994, the Rwandan government has persistently called for Rwandan Hutu forces in Congo to be disarmed.
In 2009, Kigali agreed to end its support for a rebel movement in Congo, National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, on condition that Kinshasa take stronger action against the FDLR.
Talks continue between the DRC government and M23 in Kampala, Uganda.
Marie Shematsi Baeni says M23 could be reintegrated in the Congolese army, but that their leaders should not expect to become generals.
Shematsi says their community already has many generals compared with other communities. She says that because M23 combatants are Congolese, they could rejoin their former army and be transferred to other provinces and that would end the war.
Most of M23's officers are from the Tutsi community.
Media reports in Kinshasa speculate that some of M23’s civilian leaders might be given senior official posts, including even the governorship of the central bank.