Up to 4,000 Rwandan troops have entered combat in eastern Congo, UN report says

The UN report also documented how the rebels have expanded their control of mining sites around the mineral-rich town of Rubaya in eastern Congo, including the mining of coltan, a key ingredient in the global supply chain for cellphones and laptop computers.

As many as 4,000 Rwandan troops with high-tech weaponry have secretly crossed the border into eastern Congo to fight battles that have fuelled a vast humanitarian catastrophe across the region, a new United Nations report says.

The fighting, causing heavy casualties with indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, has forced at least a million people to flee their homes in the past nine months, many of them now surviving in one of the more than 100 overcrowded camps for displaced people around the besieged city of Goma, near the border with Rwanda, the report says.

By sending troops and weapons into the Democratic Republic of Congo to support the M23 rebel militia in fighting against Congo’s military, the Rwandan government has violated Congo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while also breaching a UN arms embargo, the report says.

The 296-page report by the UN-appointed group of experts, submitted to the UN Security Council this month, has not yet been officially published, but The Globe and Mail has seen a copy.

About 3,000 to 4,000 troops from Rwanda’s military, the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), are now engaged in combat in eastern Congo, the experts said, calling it a “conservative estimate.” The Rwandan soldiers might now be more numerous than the M23 rebel militia that they are supporting, which are estimated at about 3,000 fighters, the report said.

“RDF positioned itself at the front lines, operated high-tech weaponry and directly engaged in combat,” it said.

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It describes the Rwandan soldiers occupying “key military positions” – including the hills around Sake, a strategic town about 25 kilometres from Goma, where fierce fighting has erupted this year. The Rwandan forces have helped the rebels to place Goma under siege and played a crucial role in the dramatic expansion of rebel-controlled territory, which has increased by 70 per cent since November, the report said.

“M23 and RDF de facto encircled Goma, progressively controlling all access and supply routes leading to it, except one road leading directly to Rwanda,” it said.

“M23 and RDF territorial expansion triggered persistent clashes and heavy artillery shelling … causing high civilian casualties and massive population displacement.”

In recent months, many Western governments – including the United States, France, Belgium and the European Union – have called for Rwanda to withdraw its troops and stop supporting the M23 rebellion.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a long-standing friend of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, has said nothing on the issue. The Globe asked Global Affairs Canada whether it supports the call for a Rwandan withdrawal, but the department did not respond by Monday evening.

The Rwandan government has never confirmed the presence of its troops on Congolese territory. A state-controlled newspaper, The New Times, has repeatedly denounced the latest report by the UN experts, even though it has not been officially published. One commentary in The New Times this month said the UN report “echoes the victim narrative developed by the Congolese authorities.”

The UN experts say their detailed assessment of the Rwandan troop intervention is based on extensive sources, including video recordings, drone footage, authenticated photos, witness testimony and intelligence sources. Dozens of photos, showing Rwandan troops in Congo, are included in the report.

In total, the Rwandan-supported rebellion has forced 2.2 million people from their homes in eastern Congo since 2022, causing hundreds of casualties in recent months alone, the report said.

Rwanda has deployed an arsenal of advanced weapons in eastern Congo, including surface-to-air missiles and drone-borne mortar weapons, damaging a Congolese airplane at Goma’s airport and forcing the Congolese military to ground all its air assets, which allowed the Rwandan and M23 forces to “reorganize and reinforce” in the region, it said.

A military force from several southern African countries has arrived in Goma and Sake this year, seeking to help the Congolese military in pushing back the Rwandan forces. The Rwandan government lobbied heavily against the deployment, protesting in letters to the UN Security Council.

In recent fighting, South African forces have suffered several deaths and injuries in attacks by the M23 rebels. One of the deaths was caused when the rebels attacked a clearly marked ambulance, in violation of the Geneva conventions on armed conflict, the South African military said this month. South African media have reported that the South African soldiers are outgunned by the better-equipped M23 forces.

The UN report also documented how the rebels have expanded their control of mining sites around the mineral-rich town of Rubaya in eastern Congo, including the mining of coltan, a key ingredient in the global supply chain for cellphones and laptop computers.

“At least a portion of the Rubaya minerals was then smuggled across the Rwandan border,” it said, noting that Rwanda recorded an “unprecedented rise” in coltan exports last year with a 50-per-cent increase over the previous year.

Rwanda has also built a gold refinery in its capital, Kigali, which began operations in 2022. The refinery lacks any proper procedures for tracing the origin of its gold, which could include illegally smuggled gold, the report said.

Congolese media have reported that the Rwandan-backed rebels have captured Rubaya and imposed their own controls on the local miners. The government of Congo says it loses about US$1-billion annually from the smuggling of minerals, largely across the border to Rwanda.

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