(Brussels) - As rising ethnic tensions fuel the risk of renewed war in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, local government officials have reportedly delivered guns to civilians despite a United Nations embargo, Human Rights Watch said today. U.N. Security Council members arriving in the region on Saturday must speed the deployment of additional U.N. peacekeepers and ensure that they interrupt new flows of firearms.
This week Human Rights Watch received reports that the U.N. embargo on firearms to eastern D.R.C is being violated. According to local sources, local government officials have delivered firearms to civilians in Masisi, North Kivu, long the site of conflict between different political and military groups. Other shipments have been delivered to Ituri, another persistently troubled area in northeastern Congo. U.N. sources reported that some 300 Congolese high school students, refugees in neighboring Rwanda, abruptly left their schools and are said to be undergoing military training.
“Guns and ethnic hatred make for a catastrophic mix,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “U.N. peacekeepers need to interrupt the arms flows, and Security Council members must pressure local leaders to stop fueling ethnic hostilities.”
Tensions have risen sharply between Banyamulenge—a Congolese people related to the Tutsi of Rwanda and Burundi—and Congolese of other ethnic groups. Tensions spiked after the massacre of more than 150 Congolese refugees, most of them Banyamulenge, in Burundi in mid-August. Two months earlier, Congolese troops led by Banyamulenge and Tutsi officers seized the Congolese town of Bukavu from Congolese government forces led by officers of other ethnic groups. Soldiers from both sides killed and raped civilians, leaving some 50 civilians dead, a score of them Banyamulenge.
Tutsi authorities in neighboring Rwanda and Burundi blamed Congolese officials for the killings of Banyamulenge. They called the killings genocide and in August threatened to invade the DRC.
“Firm diplomatic intervention by South Africa and Britain cooled the situation last time, but now everyone is just waiting for the next crisis,” said Des Forges. “Local political leaders are making threats and spreading rumors, ensuring that hostility stays high between the Banyamulenge and other groups.”
When Banyamulenge refugees tried to return home from Burundi in early October, they were stoned by other Congolese who accused them of preparing the way for military attack by Rwanda. Rumors last week about the return of another group of Banyamulenge refugees aroused new anger among other Congolese in Bukavu.
In the last 10 years, an estimated three million civilians died in wars in the DRC, and at least half a million Rwandan Tutsi were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide.