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Rwandan troops start preparations to leave Congo
Sat Feb 21, 2009 3:40pm EST
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By Themis Hakizimana
KILAMBO, Congo (Reuters) - Rwandan troops winding up an operation against Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Congo began preparations on Saturday for a withdrawal next week, while peacekeepers worked out how to protect areas they will leave.
Rwanda sent thousands of troops into its larger neighbor last month with the agreement of its former foes in the Kinshasa government to help hunt down Rwandan rebels who are a root cause of 15 years of conflict in Congo since Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who is facing vocal criticism from political opponents in Kinshasa for inviting in former enemies Rwanda and Uganda to hunt rebels in eastern Congo, has said foreign troops would leave by February 28.
Rwanda Defense Forces (RDF) troops have been tracking down members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which includes Hutus who took part in Rwanda's genocide, which killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Uganda, whose forces are simultaneously pursuing Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in Orientale Province, is seeking an extension to its operation, but Rwanda said on Friday it would withdraw all its troops by the middle of next week.
Hundreds of troops in the village of Kilambo and two other nearby settlements in North Kivu province packed their kit bags and stowed mortars and rocket launchers on Saturday for the march back toward the provincial capital Goma.
Rwandan officers told Reuters their forces would gather around 25 miles (15 miles) west of Goma ahead of a final parade on Wednesday and return over the border into Rwanda.
The Ugandan-led offensive triggered bloody reprisal attacks by LRA fighters who have killed nearly 900 civilians since the mission began in December, and over 100 people have been killed in reprisals by FDLR rebels, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says.
Hundreds more, mostly children, have been abducted.
The killings of defenseless civilians has provoked bitter criticism not only of the Ugandan, Rwandan and Congolese armies for failing to protect Congolese living in the operation zones, but also of the world's biggest peacekeeping operation, MONUC.
MONUC chief Alan Doss said the 17,000-strong force was discussing with the Congolese Army (FARDC) how best to coordinate operations in the area once the Rwandan forces left.
"We have made the protection of civilians the first objective of the (U.N.) Security Council," Doss told reporters in Goma on Saturday.
"We don't want the FDLR to try to return to population centers because we know they have committed abuses and crimes ... The FDLR must recognize time has moved on and they can no longer hide here in Congo."
U.N. officials say hundreds of FDLR fighters and their families have surrendered and requested repatriation to Rwanda, but most of an estimated 6,000 FDLR remain hidden in the bush. Continued...
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