The conflict in Congo's North Kivu province is stirring up ethnic hostility between many Congolese and Congo's ethnic-Tutsi population. 

By some estimates, there are more than one million ethnic Tutsis living in the hills of Congo's Kivu provinces.  Many Tutsi families have lived here for decades and some even identify themselves as Congolese.

But many Congolese reject the Tutsis as countrymen, saying the Tutsis are, for the most part, Rwandan, with Rwandan family ties, Rwandan businesses, Rwandan bank accounts, with sons and daughters who go to Rwandan schools and universities.  Many Congolese have accused them of siding with rebels, backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, who have clashed with Congolese army troops.
Some observers say the current crisis in eastern Congo is essentially ethnic: there is a widening rift between the Congolese and so-called Rwandaphones, meaning anyone who speaks Kinyarwandan, the Rwandan language.  That includes about one million Congolese Tutsis and Hutus, Banyamelenges, Banyejombas, and Bagogwes clustered in the lush green hills of Congo's North and South Kivu provinces.

The ethnic tension that spilled over into violence this week is only the latest in a series of clashes between Congolese troops and dissident soldiers from the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RDC), a former rebel group backed by Rwanda.

Congo President Joseph Kabila sent a 10,000-strong Congolese force to the region just in case Rwanda followed through on its threat to invade Congo.  He, presumably, wanted to track down tens of thousands of Hutu fighters, mainly Interhamwe militiamen and former Rwandan Armed Forces, called ex-FAR, soldiers who fled to Congo after carrying out genocide against Rwanda's minority Tutsi population 10 years ago.

But the buildup of Congolese troops spread panic through the region's Rwandaphone community, especially among the ethnic Tutsis living here, who claim thousands of Interhamwe and ex-FAR extremists have been absorbed into Congo's national army, a claim supported by Rwanda's government.

The Rwandaphones say they had reason to be fearful.  Rwandan officials say Hutu militias, backed by the Congolese army, have been taking potshots at ethnic Tutsis living in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

In June, Congolese troops and Hutu fighters advanced on the North Kivu town of Bukavu, reportedly killing about 25 ethnic Tutsis before RCD soldiers retook the town, temporarily.

In August, Congo-backed Hutu extremists were blamed for the slaughter of 162 Banyamelenge women and children at a refugee camp just south of Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.  The Banyamelenges had taken refuge there following a spate of Hutu-led attacks in the South Kivu city of Uvira.

John Mahuza is a Congolese Tutsi. He's one of the directors for the newly established Association for Justice and Unity in the Kivus, which represents much of the Rwandaphone community in eastern Congo. 

"There is an ethnic hatred against Rwandaphone people since the events of Bukavu and Uvira (led) up to situation that is happening in Kanyabayonga," he said.  "When Kabila decided to send soldiers in Bukavu, he gave them the mission of eliminating Tutsi groups.  The slogan by now in Bukavu is, 'Bukavu, a clean town,' because there are no Tutsi.  This is what Kabila is looking for about the town of Goma and other areas inhabited by Tutsis or other Rwandaphone groups."

But regional analysts say the violence being directed at Congo's Rwandaphone community has its roots in the harsh treatment meted out to many Congolese during nearly 10 years of Rwandan domination since 1994.

Human Rights Watch observers say the threat of ethnic violence against the region's Tutsis and wider Rwandaphone population is exaggerated, and used by Rwanda to continue exerting control in this mineral-rich region of Congo.

Mr. Mahuza says a lasting solution to the current conflict needs to address the grievances of Congo's beleaguered Rwandaphone community.  As long as they feel threatened, there will always be Rwanda in the background, ready to defend them through proxy militias like RCD, which threatens the stability of the region.

But in a twist of history, Mr. Mahuza says it is likely that Congolese Tutsis and Hutus, which has been a lethal ethnic pairing in Rwanda, might find themselves fighting side by side in Congo to defend themselves against Congolese troops and Rwandan Hutu extremists. 

"Yes, I think that it is possible, fighting side by side Hutu and the Tutsi Rwandaphones," he added.  "Because the problem is not only about Tutsi.  The problem concerns also the Hutu groups. We are aware we have same problems and we are going to develop our unity in order to defend ourselves."