NEW YORK (AP) — Rwanda's foreign minister said Thursday her country is prepared to mount another joint military operation in Congo to root out Hutu militia members there if Congo asks for help.
Eastern Congo has been ripped apart by violence since Rwanda's 1994 genocide spilled across the border. Hutu militias who participated in the massacre of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus sought refuge afterward in Congo.
In January 2009, a joint military operation between the Congolese and Rwandan armies was launched against the rebels. However, the campaign was brief, lasting only about two months.
Rwanda has mounted incursions into Congo twice to eradicate the militias, toppling dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in the process. Fighting from 1998-2002 drew in half a dozen African armies and split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms.
The nerve center of the conflict is the rebel army, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, founded by the same men who led the 1994 genocide. U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has reported the FDLR has been responsible for hundreds of killings and rapes in Congo.
Rwanda's government, dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, has been in power since the end of the 1994 genocide. The massacres ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated the Hutu extremists.
Kagame's administration has since been diligent about fighting genocidal tendencies — whether in the form of a military operation in Congo or the establishment of a constitutional ban on the practice of "genocide ideology."
"Normalcy, security, peace. These are things we take very seriously," Mushikiwabo said.
But critics of the government argue the RPF has used the concept of genocide ideology as a tool to discredit detractors and defeat political opponents as the country approaches national elections in August.
Jonathan Elliott, the African Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., said opposition political groups have faced increasing threats, harassment and even attacks from individuals and agencies close to the government and the RPF.
HFR reported in February that a member of the opposition FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office in what appeared to be an organized attack.
Victoire Ingabire, president of the FDU-Inkingi, has been scorned in official media for stating publicly that crimes committed against Hutu citizens by the RPF and Rwandan army should be investigated.
"There's an attempt to prevent any possibility of any dissent turning into a possible threat to the government," Elliott said.
Mushikiwabo said some groups have not been able to meet the legal requirements needed to become a political party and others have merely sought to criticize a government that has made great strides since the mass killings.
"It's not that the government does not want dissent," she said.
Mushikiwabo said Rwanda has come a long way in the 16 years since the genocide was ended. Perhaps the most poignant symbol of that has been renewed ties with France.
Rwanda has alleged a French role in the genocide, often accusing France of training and arming the militias and former government troops who led the genocide. In 1998, a French parliamentary panel absolved France of responsibility in the slaughter.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently visited Rwanda to repair long-troubled ties, saying Paris wanted those responsible for the genocide to be found and punished, including those believed to be living in France.
A French advocacy group for genocide survivors describes France as a "haven" for those who helped perpetrate the killings, and filed more than a dozen lawsuits against people living in France. Ensuing investigations by the French government in part led to the Rwandan government's decision to renew ties. "We see that the prosecutorial part is moving forward," Mushikiwabo said.