M23 rebels have continued to occupy strategic positions in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], the day they were supposed to withdraw under a regional peace initiative.
Among these key sites is the town of Bunagana, on the Ugandan border, where a Ugandan contingent of the Community of East African States [EAC] regional force again delayed their deployment to ensure rebels’ withdrawal on Thursday.
Early on Thursday, an EAC delegation left Goma, the main city in the country’s east, led by the force commander, Kenyan General Jeff Nyagah.
In the afternoon, the entry of the Ugandan soldiers seemed imminent, but after attending a meeting between the EAC and the M23, General Nyagah indicated in the early evening, without explanation, that their arrival was now planned for Friday instead.
The deployment was initially scheduled for Wednesday.
A South Sudan contingent was also scheduled to turn up but has yet to arrive.
M23 rebels have captured swathes of territory in eastern DRC since reemerging from dormancy in late 2021 and have nearly encircled the trade hub of Goma.
Bunagana, a commercial crossroads on the Ugandan border, was the first major rebel capture, falling to the M23 in June last year. The rebels have since taken over other towns in the Rutshuru and Masisi regions.
The seven-nation EAC decided last June to create a military force, in addition to the UN force [MONUSCO], with the aim of bringing peace to eastern DRC, which has been plagued by armed violence for nearly 30 years.
‘Despicable’ attacks against civilians
The UN rights chief Volker Turk on Thursday decried the surging violence in eastern DRC, with rampant sexual violence and more than 1,300 people, including over 100 children, killed since October.
The M23 insurgents, along with the Allied Democratic Forces, a notorious militia called CODECO and Zaire and Nyatura armed groups, are continuing to “perpetrate despicable attacks against the civilian population with complete impunity”, Turk said in Geneva.
He lamented that the violence had displaced some six million people inside the DRC, marking the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa. Some 120 armed groups hold sway in eastern DRC regions.
March 30 was supposed to mark the end of the withdrawal of “all armed groups”, according to a timetable adopted in mid-February by the EAC.
In addition, after several other unfulfilled announcements, a ceasefire should have come into effect on March 7, but has not been respected.
The M23 has announced its withdrawal from certain localities, but these announcements have been described as a “diversion” by the Congolese army.
DRC claims the M23 is backed by neighbouring Rwanda.
Independent UN experts, the United States and several other Western nations have also concluded that the M23 is backed by Rwanda, though Kigali denies the accusation.
Turk, meanwhile, decried heightened tensions between the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda, which he warned had “generated disinformation and hate speech”.
He warned of severe hate speech and incitement to hostility in eastern DRC, targeting among others people presumed to be of Rwandan origin.