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Rwandan Soldiers Leave Eastern Congo, Militia Threat Remains

Rwandan soldiers have withdrawn from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but the fight against the Rwandan Hutu militia they were targeting is far from over.

Last week, thousands of Rwandan troops began withdrawing from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They had been pursuing the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, a Rwandan Hutu militia whose members had fled across the border into Congo in 1994, after participating in the genocide in that country.

The operation that began in January in cooperation with the Congolese armed forces, has led to the repatriation of hundreds of Hutu militiamen, destined for re-education camps in Rwanda. But many more of the fighters remain at large. Recent estimates have put the militia's strength at around 6,000.

Since the withdrawal of the Rwandan forces, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo, known as MONUC, has reported that the militia has retaken several positions it gave up during the Rwandan operation. MONUC military spokesman Jean-Paul Dietrich says such a development was expected.

"What we have seen is that, following the withdrawal of the FARDC and Rwanda from certain areas, the FDLR are reported to have reoccupied some of their previous positions," Dietrich said.

Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited eastern Congo and the Rwandan capital Kigali, where he praised the Rwandan operation and its role in improving relations with the DRC, historically tense due to Rwanda's involvement in Congo's civil wars.

"Rwanda's joint military operation with the DRC against the threat of the FDLR appears to be making progress," Ban said. "On that point I also urge the president to ensure that these operations do not effect negatively the civilian population and humanitarian access to those in need."

Mr. Ban said U.N. peacekeepers would work with the Congolese military to help prevent the Rwandan Hutu militia from re-establishing itself and from preying on civilians in the region. Dietrich says MONUC is discussing future operations to target the FDLR with Congo's government.

"In order to keep the momentum, MONUC is now planning with the governmental forces from DRC to continue the operations against the FDLR," Dietrich explained. "The clear idea is to protect the civilian population against reprisals by the FDLR and to cut the economic resources from the FDLR."

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who met with Secretary General Ban on Sunday, said Rwanda would remain involved in diplomatic efforts against the militia and is open to further military operations in the future.

Mr. Ban also met with Congolese president Joseph Kabila on Saturday in Kisangani. Mr. Ban called for increased efforts to combat sexual violence in the country, both by the numerous armed militias operating in the country's east, and by the Congolese army.

Meanwhile, Congolese and Ugandan officials are discussing the future of a Ugandan-led military operation targeting the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group in northeastern DRC. That mission was also to finish at the end of February, but Ugandan officials have indicated an interest in continuing the campaign.

That view is shared by many Congolese civilians in the area. The Ugandan-led operation has given way to reprisal attacks by the rebels that aid agencies estimate have killed at least 900 people.

But political pressure in Congo's parliament has been building for the Ugandan troops to leave the country.