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Congo: Step forward or back to the past?

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Rwanda sent hundreds of its soldiers into eastern Congo on Tuesday in what the neighbours have described as a joint operation against Hutu rebels who have been at the heart of 15 years of conflict. Details are still somewhat sketchy, with Rwanda saying its soldiers are under Congolese command but Kinshasa saying Kigali’s men have come as observers.

Evidence on the ground suggests something more serious. United Nations peacekeepers and diplomats have said up to 2,000 Rwandan soldiers crossed into Congo. A Reuters reporter saw hundreds of heavily armed troops wearing Rwandan flag patches moving into Congo north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. The world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission is, for now, being kept out of the loop.

Foreign soldiers in Congo are nothing new. Rwanda first invaded in 1996. A 1998-2003 war in Congo sucked in six neighbouring armies. But after years of diplomacy and billions of dollars spent on peacekeeping and Congo’s 2006 elections, analysts are frantically trying to work out what is going on.

The current joint operation stems from an agreement signed in December between Rwanda and Congo to cooperate more closely after weeks of heavy fighting in North Kivu province. Although the fighting was officially between Congolese government forces and Tutsi rebels, most analysts saw it as an escalation of a proxy war between Rwanda and Congo that has continued despite 2003 peace deals.

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