By Hereward Holland
NAIROBI -The seven countries of the East African Community (EAC) have agreed to set up a regional military force to try to end decades of bloodshed caused by militant activity in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya said.
Despite billions of dollars spent on one of the United Nation’s largest peacekeeping forces, more than 120 rebel groups continue to operate across large swathes of east Congo almost two decades after the official end of the central African country’s civil wars.
The EAC, which Congo joined last month, called on local armed groups to join a political process to resolve their grievances or “be handled militarily”, the office of Kenya’s president said in a statement following an EAC meeting in Nairobi on Thursday.
Foreign armed groups, which include an Islamist insurgency with origins in Uganda and ties to Islamic State (IS), “must disarm and return unconditionally and immediately to their respective countries of origin,” the president’s office said, without providing further details about the force.
Tanzania already contributes 835 troops to the U.N.‘s peacekeeping mission, while Kenya contributes 250.
The U.N. has previously accused neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda of backing rebel groups in the mineral-rich region, accusations the two countries firmly deny.
Recent attempts to stop the violence militarily have proven unsuccessful, and in some cases backfired, security analysts and human rights groups say.
Congo imposed martial law in its eastern Ituri and North Kivu provinces in May and began joint operations with Uganda’s army in November against the Islamist group, known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
The ADF often murders civilians in retaliation for military campaigns against it, human rights groups and security analysts say. It killed more than 1,200 people in 2021, up almost 50% on the previous year, according to the U.N.
Meanwhile a meeting that had been expected to take place on Friday between Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and representatives of another group, the M23, in Kenya’s capital did not take place, Tshisekedi’s spokesperson, Tina Salama, tweeted. She did not give a reason why it failed to take place.
The Congolese army clashed with the M23 in several days of heavy fighting last month, after which the group declared a unilateral ceasefire.
Congolese lawmaker Juvenal Munobo, a member of parliament’s defence and security commission, expressed reservations about the regional force on Twitter.
“We know these countries have interests in the Congo. I think the solution is to invest in (Congo’s army),” he wrote.
Unrest in Congo has caused one of the world’s worst and longest-running humanitarian emergencies, with more than 27 million people facing food shortages, and nearly 5.5 million forced to flee their homes, according to the U.N.