The top U.N. official for the Democratic Republic of the Congo said Wednesday that the resurgent M23 rebel group in the country’s east is well-armed and equipped, posing a growing threat to civilians.
“During the most recent hostilities, the M23 has conducted itself increasingly as a conventional army, rather than an armed group,” said Bintou Keita, head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as MONUSCO.
“The M23 possesses firepower and equipment, which is increasingly sophisticated, specifically in terms of long-range fire capacities — mortars, machine guns, as well as precision fire against aircraft,” she said in remarks to the Security Council.
The M23 was defeated by Congo’s army (FARDC) and special MONUSCO forces in 2013. But in November 2021, its forces began to reemerge.
Congolese officials blame neighboring Rwanda, saying it supports the group, which claims to be protecting the Tutsi minority in eastern DRC. Rwanda’s government is Tutsi-led but denies any link to the rebel group.
At the Security Council, Congolese Ambassador Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja called for the M23’s unconditional withdrawal from the DRC. He also urged strong condemnation of those who support the group “beginning with the state of Rwanda and its president.”
“This is an unfounded accusation,” Rwanda’s envoy Claver Gatete responded.
MONUSCO has more than 16,000 troops and police in Congo’s east. But Keita warned they may soon be outgunned by the rebels.
“Should the M23 continue its well-coordinated attacks against FARDC and MONUSCO with increasing conventional capabilities, the mission may find itself confronted by a threat that goes beyond its current capabilities,” she said.
The United Nations has called on the group to cease all hostilities and disarm.
In the past three months, the U.N. has recorded nearly 1,000 civilian deaths and scores of injuries in the provinces of North and South Kivu and Ituri because of attacks by armed groups and their clashes with security forces.
The militants seek to control lucrative trade in sought-after minerals, including gold, tungsten, copper and cobalt, which are abundant in the east.
As Congolese security forces and U.N. peacekeepers have redeployed to respond to the M23 threat, Keita said, other armed groups have exploited the security vacuum, including the Allied Democratic Forces and the Coopérative pour le développement du Congo-Zaire (CODECO).
The U.N. has chronicled abuses including looting, rape and murder. Displacements have soared in the east, with 700,000 people forced from their homes since the beginning of 2022.
“Just imagine — mothers are cooking dust, soil, to feed their children instead of boiling corn or soya,” said Julienne Lusenge of the Ituri-based women’s NGO Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development.
Speaking to council members via video, Lusenge read the horrifying testimony of one woman who was kidnapped by CODECO militants when she went to pay a ransom for a captive relative.
“It was a trap. They brought me there, they tied me up, they beat me, they undressed me. They slit the throat of a Nande man, they pulled out his entrails and asked me to cook them,” Lusenge said, reading the woman’s statement. “They then fed all of the prisoners human flesh.”
The woman’s ordeal did not end there.
“Late at night, we went to another camp. I was raped all night long, and I was subjected to other physical abuse,” she said.
Released by CODECO a few days later, the woman was then taken by another group in a different village as she made her way home. She was held as a sex slave for several days and again was asked to cook and eat human flesh. When she finally arrived home, she discovered the relative whose release she had been trying to secure had already been murdered.
Regional stabilization force
The resurgence of the M23 has led to a deterioration in relations between the DRC and Rwanda.
On May 27, the Congolese government declared M23 a terrorist movement, accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels and suspended RwandAir flights to the DRC.
At an African Union summit the next day, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chairman of the AU, met with the two presidents and offered Angolan President João Lourenço, chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, to mediate between them.
Last week, East African leaders agreed to deploy a regional security force to help restore order in the eastern Congo and ease tensions. Kenya is slated to lead the force, the size of which has not been announced.
The U.N.’s Keita told reporters she has been told the force’s headquarters will be deployed by the end of July, and troops will follow in August.
“I would urge East Africa Community leaders to prioritize dialogue-based approaches to the crisis,” U.S. envoy Richard Mills told the council. “The United States insists that the deployment of any additional force in eastern DRC must be closely coordinated with MONUSCO, and it must be conducted in conformity with the parties’ respective commitments under international law, including international humanitarian law.”
He said it must also be done in line with existing Security Council sanctions resolutions, and the council should be formally notified before it is deployed.