Rwandan troops have crossed the border into Democratic Republic of Congo to participate in a joint operation against a militia group operating in the country's east. The aid agency Oxfam has warned that the operation could threaten the civilian population.
UNICEF said that about 2,000 Rwandan troops entered eastern DRC on Tuesday morning. Rwandan and Congolese troops have been reported heading towards the town of Rutshuru north of the provincial capital Goma. The troops are thought to be participating in a joint military operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, a Hutu militia active in eastern Congo.
Congo and Rwanda agreed in December to target the FDLR. The Congolese government has said the operation is expected to take 10 to 15 days.
The FDLR, many of whose members belonged to the Interahamwe militia that carried out the Rwandan genocide in 1994, has long been seen as a destabilizing presence in the region. But the British aid group Oxfam warned on Wednesday that a military operation could have severe consequences on an already fragile humanitarian situation. Oxfam's Congo policy coordinator Ellie Kemp spoke to VOA from Kinshasa.
"We're concerned as our the communities themselves, about what the impact will be on the civilians in the area that the operation's going to cover. Communities are already saying how scared they are of that," said Kemp. "Very recent history has shown what the risks are of people getting caught in the cross fire, that they will be deliberately targeted for violence."
She said that peacekeepers in the area lack the resources to adequately protect civilians.
"The capacity both nationally and internationally to keep them safe at the moment is extremely limited. The U.N. peacekeeping force is still waiting for an additional 3,000 troops that were promised more than two months ago and are very much overstretched," she said. "And the Congolese army itself has not been an effective protective presence and elements of it have been attacking civilians themselves."
The U.N. says its patrols have been blocked from areas involved in the operation
The presence of the FDLR in eastern Congo has long hampered relations between the DRC and Rwanda, and the current operation may signal an improvement in the countries' ties.
The FDLR's continued activities are also a major grievance of the Congolese Tutsi CNDP (National Congress for the Defense of the People) rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda, and whose clashes with the government last year displaced an estimated 250,000 people. Nkunda says his group's intent is to defend the region's Tutsi minority from attacks by the Hutu FDLR. The CNDP has lifted roadblocks to allow the Congolese and Rwandan troops to carry out their operation.