New deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After Kenyans and Burundians, Ugandan soldiers from the East African regional force overseeing the withdrawal of M23 rebels began arriving Friday (March 31st) in eastern Congo, where the situation remains volatile.

This new contingent deployed under the banner of the East African Community (EAC) entered Congo through the Bunagana border post, a major commercial crossroads seized by the rebellion last June.

"The Ugandans have just arrived at our house in Bunagana, they have just passed with tanks, vehicles... They are very numerous," a resident of the city, located about 70 km northeast of Goma, capital of North Kivu province, told AFP by telephone.

The Kenyan commander of the EAC force, General Jeff Nyagah, said in Goma that the Ugandan contingent numbered 1,000 troops. "They entered this morning," he said, adding that they should eventually reach a strength of 2,000 troops.

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The mission of the Ugandan soldiers is not for the moment to "fight" the M23, stressed Thursday, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, but to occupy, as a "neutral force", "positions handed over by the M23 to the EAC force".

This deployment, initially scheduled for Wednesday, then Thursday and again postponed after discussions between the EAC and the M23, comes as March 30 should have marked the end of the withdrawal "of all armed groups" from eastern Congo, according to a schedule adopted in mid-February in Addis Ababa by EAC heads of state. A deadline that was not met.

"The withdrawal of the M23 is going to be sequential," General Nyagah said, while witnesses said the rebels were still in Bunagana.

"The M23 is still here," another resident said. "We are waiting for him to step down, that's when we can say that there is an evolution...", he added.

A planned South Sudanese contingent

The M23, a predominantly Tutsi rebellion that has seized large swathes of North Kivu territory over the past year, with the support of Rwanda according to UN experts, has announced its withdrawal from some localities, but these announcements have been described as a "diversion" by the Congolese army.

A ceasefire should have entered into force on 7 March, but once again it was not respected either.

There has been no recent large-scale fighting between the Congolese army (FARDC) and the rebels, but clashes are regularly reported, most often involving armed groups setting themselves up as "patriots" against the M23.

Ugandan soldiers are to deploy to several locations in Rutshuru territory.

Since the end of 2022, Kenyan soldiers of the EAC force have been positioned in the same territory, who were quickly criticized by the population for not forcing the rebels to withdraw but rather for cohabiting with them. When they arrived, the Congolese understood that their mandate had to be "offensive", which was not the case.

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Burundian EAC troops are deployed in neighbouring Masisi territory. A South Sudanese contingent is also planned but has not yet arrived.

Other Ugandan soldiers have already been present in eastern Congo since late 2021, but not as part of the EAC. Further north, they are conducting operations with the Congolese army against rebels of Ugandan origin, the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces).

The creation of the EAC force was decided last June, in parallel with diplomatic demarches and in addition to the UN force (MONUSCO), with the objective of bringing peace to eastern Congo, plagued by armed violence for nearly 30 years.

According to the UN, the violence has claimed more than 1,300 lives in the past six months.

Last week, a former rebel leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was appointed Congo's defense minister. "The task is immense," he said on taking office, as immense as "our humiliation as a nation."

In particular, it has set itself the task of "the rise of the FARDC" which, due to a lack of organization, means and professionalism, according to experts, has so far shown itself incapable of stopping the rebel advance.

With AFP

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