Q&A: DR Congo's M23 rebels

Rebels sit in a truck as they patrol a street in Sake, eastern DR Congo - 21 November 2012

The M23 rebels have brought havoc to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since April 2012 but have now ended their insurgency after the government said they had been defeated.

At least 800,000 people have fled their homes and at one point, there were fears a new regional war could break out, with accusations that Rwanda and Uganda were backing the rebels - charges both countries denied.

The advances by the Congolese army follow changes in the military structures and the intervention of a brigade of UN troops with a tough mandate.

Who are the rebels?

The group is made up of fighters who deserted from the Congolese army in April 2012 following a mutiny.

They are mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, a minority in eastern DR Congo but with ties to Rwanda's leaders.

They were led by several top-ranking officers who were members of a former militia called the CNDP - including Col Sultani Makenga and Gen Bosco Ntaganda, who faces war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.

Their movement is called M23 in reference to a 23 March 2009 peace deal, which the CNDP signed with the Congolese government.

Congo and Rwanda: Neighbours from hell

Rwanda map
  • April-June 1994: Genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda
  • June 1994: Paul Kagame's Tutsi rebels take power in Rwanda, Hutus flee into Zaire (DR Congo)
  • Rwanda's army enters eastern Zaire to pursue Hutu fighters
  • 1997: Laurent Kabila's AFDL, backed by Rwanda, takes power in Kinshasa
  • 1998: Rwanda accuses Kabila of not acting against Hutu rebels and tries to topple him, sparking five years of conflict
  • 2003: War officially ends but Hutu and Tutsi militias continue to clash in eastern DR Congo
  • 2008: Tutsi-led CNDP rebels take up arms, causing thousands to flee
  • 2009: Rwanda and DR Congo agree peace deal and CNDP integrated into Congolese army
  • 2012: Former CNDP rebels, now called M23, take up arms. Rwanda denies backing them
  • 2013: US withdraws military aid to Rwanda, M23 on verge of defeat

Why did they rebel?

The rebels, also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army, say the government has not lived up to its promises in the 2009 deal.

They say they were mistreated after being integrated into the army, were not paid enough and that the military lacked vital resources, with soldiers were going hungry.

But analysts believe the real reason for their rebellion stems from comments made by Congolese President Joseph Kabila in January 2012, who under pressure from the ICC, said the Congolese authorities would put Gen Ntaganda on trial.

Where is he now?

Gen Ntaganda, known as "The Terminator", gave himself up to the US embassy in Rwanda in March 2013, after losing a power-struggle within the M23.

He has since been transferred to the ICC in The Hague.

Is that why they are now on the back foot?

The internal rifts probably didn't actually make much difference.

Most analysts point to two far more significant developments: Reduced Rwandan support for the M23 and the intervention of a tough new brigade of UN troops.

Although this was always denied by Rwanda, UN investigators have long accused Rwanda of backing the M23.

This led several donors to cut financial and then military aid to Kigali and the UN says Rwandan backing to the M23 has now fallen off.

Meanwhile, the UN has sent a force of some 3,000 well-equipped troops with a tougher mandate than any other peacekeeping force, tasked with disarming and "neutralising" rebels forces in eastern DR Congo.

Their use of helicopter gunships against the rebels is credited with making a huge difference, paving the way for the army to retake the territory seized by the rebels in 2012.

Why did the UN send the extra troops?

The UN has had a huge mission - currently some 18,000 troops - in DR Congo for many years but the unrest never seems to end.

Many Congolese have derided them as "tourists" for many years and in 2012, they were unable to stop the M23 from seizing the regional capital, Goma, before they pulled out under international pressure.

But they remained camped on the outskirts of Goma until their recent reverses.

So why would Rwanda back rebels in DR Congo?

The unrest in eastern DR Congo goes back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

After killing some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, some of the militias fled into DR Congo (then called Zaire) as Tutsi rebels seized power in Kigali.

Ever since, the now Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda has sought to wipe out the Hutu militias, accusing them of planning to destabilise Rwanda.

Rwanda has used several militias, often headed by Congolese Tutsis, to attack the Hutus, analysts say. And the M23 is merely the latest of these.

So is this the end of almost two decades of conflict in DR Congo?

That is the hope.

But numerous other armed groups continue to operate in eastern DR Congo, including the Hutu militias.

So it is possible that after international attention has waned - and if the Congolese government does not take action itself against the Hutus - then Rwanda could start backing another group.

And until the Congolese state is strong enough to master its vast territory, two-thirds the size of Western Europe, armed groups could always be tempted to seek to control its mineral wealth.

Eastern DR Congo is rich in resources and minerals like gold and coltan - essential for mobile phones.

In theory, these should mean the area's people are hugely wealthy but so far, they just seem to have attracted a long history of looters.

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Understanding DR Congo
Map showing the location of different rebel groups in eastern states of Democratic Republic of Congo Eastern DR Congo is awash with a variety of different rebel groups. This is a snapshot of their locations in late 2012. Some have come from neighbouring countries, while others have formed as self-defence groups. Many are taking advantage of the lack of a strong state to seize control of the area's mineral riches.
Map showing the size of the Democratic Republic of Congo The Democratic Republic of Congo covers 2,344,858 square km of land in the centre of Africa, making it the 12th largest country in the world.
Map showing the population centres of the Democratic Republic of Congo With an estimated population of 75.5 million, DR Congo is the fourth most populous country in Africa. Some 35% of the population live in cities and the capital Kinshasa is by far the largest, with more than 8 million inhabitants. DR Congo has around 200 ethnic identities with the majority of people belonging to the Kongo, Luba and Mongo groups.
Map showing where valuable minerals can be found in the Democratic Republic of Congo DR Congo has abundant mineral wealth. It has more than 70% of the world's coltan, used to make vital components of mobile phones, 30% of the planet's diamond reserves and vast deposits of cobalt, copper and bauxite. This wealth however has attracted looters and fuelled the country's civil war.

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