Soldiers from Burundi have deployed to the troubled eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as the first part of a recently created East African regional force to respond to crises.
“As you have seen, our soldiers have been received officially. They are in Congo on an official mission,” the spokesman for Burundi’s army, Colonel Floribert Biyereke, told The Associated Press (AP) news agency on Monday.
He said a battalion had been sent.
The deployment was confirmed by a DRC army spokesman, Lieutenant Marc Elongo, who said the mandate is to track down “all foreign and local armed groups in order to restore peace” in the mineral-rich region bordering Rwanda and Uganda where dozens of rebel groups operate.
Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, which the former has accused of supporting the recently resurgent M23 rebel group, in part led to the East African Community creating the regional force earlier this year.
Rwanda, in turn, accuses the DRC of backing another rebel group, the FDLR, which Rwanda considers a threat.
There are more than 120 armed groups active in the DRC.
Burundi also borders the DRC, and the presence of its soldiers there concerns some observers. Carina Tertsakian who is the Burundian Human Rights Initiative told the AP that the soldiers might pursue another rebel group, RED Tabara, that has been accused of carrying out attacks inside Burundi.
“It is no surprise that Burundi is the first country to offer troops,” Tertsakian said, asserting that hundreds of Burundian forces already had been quietly deployed in the DRC for several months on that mission.
“Burundi is a direct party to the conflict, so cannot be viewed as a neutral actor,” she said, adding that Burundian security forces have a long record of human rights abuses. “It therefore seems unlikely that their deployment will end the insecurity in the area.”