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DR Congo: foreign armies, militias, private military contractors

Foreign armies, militias and private military contractors are active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where clashes with M23 rebels have recently erupted after a months-long lull. Tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in a country with more than six million already displaced. The government of the central African nation is now pushing for United Nations peacekeepers to leave the region. – UN peacekeepers – UN peacekeepers have been present in the DRC since 1999. Known as MONUSCO, the peacekeeping mission is one of the largest and costliest in the world, with an annual budget of around $1 billion. But the force is deeply unpopular due to perceptions that it has failed to curb violence. The government wants MONUSCO to leave. “It is time for our country to fully take its destiny in hand and become the principal actor of its own stability,” Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi told the UN General Assembly last month. His government has asked the 14,000-strong force to leave by the end of the year. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said the security situation in eastern DRC is “deteriorating sharply”. – Regional armies – Conventional foreign armies also operate in eastern DRC. Uganda — which has previously backed Congolese rebel groups — sent troops to the region in late 2021 to fight the Allied Democratic Forces group, at Kinshasa’s invitation. The rapprochement between Uganda and DRC appears to have triggered an explosion of tensions with neighbouring Rwanda. A Rwanda-backed group, the M23 launched an offensive in late 2021 and captured swathes of territory. The rebellion has driven over one million people from their homes. In a bid to calm tensions, the seven-nation East African Community deployed a military force to eastern DRC. Kenyan, Ugandan, Burundian and South Sudanese troops had arrived in the eastern Congolese city of Goma by early 2023. The regional force then established buffer zones north of Goma — to the fury of Kinshasa, which expected a direct confrontation with the M23. In May, Tshisekedi accused the East African force of “cohabiting” with the M23. The DRC has since pinned its hopes on the arrival of troops from the Southern African Development Community bloc. But that prospect has stalled, according to diplomats with knowledge of the discussions. The East African force’s mandate ends on December 8, by which date the Congolese government wants the troops to leave, according to the government spokesman. – Western soldiers – Nearly 1,000 Western soldiers, working for two private military companies, have also been in Goma since late last year. Both military contractors have been integrated into the Congolese military to fight the M23. Agemira, the first of the contractors, is run by French nationals and includes retired French military personnel. It initially provided maintenance services to the Congolese Air Force but is now part of the military’s operational command and has taken part in bombing raids on M23 positions. The second company, Congo Protection, is managed in Goma by a Romanian ex-member of the French Foreign Legion. Congo Protection’s mostly Eastern European soldiers are involved in training Congolese army units and protecting Goma. They have also joined in combat against the rebels. – State-allied militias – After six months of precarious calm, clashes with the M23 resumed in early October. The Congolese army says it is respecting a ceasefire agreement with the M23 and has not been involved in recent clashes. But local residents and security sources say that the Congolese army is supporting loyal armed groups, known locally as Wazalendo, who are on the offensive. Congo’s government spokesman has hailed these informal fighters as “brave young Congolese”. There have been numerous reports of collaboration between the Congolese military and armed groups, some of whose commanders are under international sanctions. An internal MONUSCO report from the beginning of the month, seen by AFP, stated that a number of armed groups involved in the current clashes “seem to be increasingly operating as proxy elements for the Congolese armed forces”.

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