UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts accused the Rwandan military of commanding Congolese rebel forces in their recent capture of the strategic city of Goma, saying a top Rwandan commander traveled to Congo to oversee the offensive and hundreds of Rwandan troops fought alongside the M23 rebel fighters.
In a letter to a U.N. Security Council committee, the experts provided a day-by-day outline and photos backing their conclusion. The M23 rebels held Goma, a provincial capital of 1 million, for two weeks before Congolese soldiers took back control Monday.
The letter, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, is a follow-up to a report preceding the capture of Goma that made similar accusations against Rwandan forces.
A call to Rwanda's U.N. Mission seeking comment on the letter was not immediately returned. Rwanda has repeatedly denied assisting the rebels.
M23 is made up of hundreds of officers who deserted the Congolese army in April. Since then the rebels have occupied vast swaths of territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo. The rebels accuse Congo's President Joseph Kabila of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army, although most analysts believe that the origin of the rebellion is a fight over the country's vast mineral wealth.
The expert group said it has repeatedly concluded that the government of Rwanda and allies in the Ugandan government have "created, equipped, trained, advised, reinforced and directly commanded the M23 rebellion."
"The information initially gathered by the group regarding the recent offensive and seizure of the North Kivu provincial town of Goma strongly upholds this conclusion," said the letter to a committee that monitors sanctions against armed groups in Congo.
After deserting the army, M23 fighters seized a series of small towns and villages in the North Kivu province, where a good chunk of Congo's mineral wealth is found, culminating with the Nov. 20 capture of Goma. The Congolese army fled in disarray and U.N. peacekeepers, whose mandate is to protect civilians, held fire.
The experts quoted several senior Congolese commanders and former Rwandan officers as saying the Goma offensive was under the overall command of the Rwandan army's western division commander, Gen. Emmanuel Ruvusha, who personally went to Congo to oversee the operation.
The same sources were quoted as telling the experts that Col. Sultani Makenga, an M23 rebel leader, joined Ruvusha in leading the offensive. Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is believed to be the leader of M23 and is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, led rebel troops operating near the Rwandan border at Kibumba and in the vicinity of Goma airport, the sources were quoted as saying.
The letter, dated Nov. 26, said preparations for the Goma offensive took place over a two-month period and included significant logistics supplies for the rebels from Uganda. The experts said they personally witnessed a delivery of hundreds of rain boots for the rebels to the Ugandan town of Bunagana, on the border with Congo. They included a photo of the Oct. 14 delivery.
At the end of October, they said, Rwanda and Uganda deployed additional troops to Congo to support M23. The letter details specific units and the towns where they were sent.
As the Goma offensive began, the rebels benefited from direct Rwandan military support on the front lines at the village of Kibumba, a center for refugees from a 2009 rebellion 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Goma, the experts said, citing former Rwandan officers, Congolese army officers and local leaders.
On Nov. 15, while Makenga's M23 fighters were advancing, four companies from Rwanda's 305th brigade crossed the border to conduct operations against Congolese army positions at Kibumba, the experts said.
The Congolese army repelled the initial attack and killed over 40 rebels and Rwandan soldiers, many of whom wore Rwandan military uniforms and carried weapons used by Rwandan forces, they said. The letter includes photos of soldiers in both M23 and Rwandan uniforms.
Two days later, M23 fighters attacking Kibumba were reinforced by the four companies from Rwanda's 305th brigade as well as three companies from other Rwandan brigades and a Rwandan special forces unit led by Col. Vincent Gatama.
The experts cited former Rwandan officers and senior Congolese army officers, who estimated that, in total, well over 1,000 Rwandan troops went Congo to assist in the Kibumba operations.
The M23 and Rwandan military used night vision goggles, usually used by Rwandan special forces, during the nighttime advance on Kibumba, as well as heavy weaponry including 120mm mortars, which the experts said Makenga obtained from support networks in Rwanda and Uganda before he deserted from the Congolese army in May. The letter included a photo of 120mm mortars said to come from Makenga's private stock.
"The group learned through diplomatic sources in the region that the government of Rwanda had sought assistance to destroy 120mm mortars still within its arsenal in August 2012 in anticipation of eventual accusations of Rwandan weapons supplies to the rebels," the letter said.
When M23 progressed toward Goma on Nov. 19, Rwandan units operated alongside the rebels in combat at the airport and close to a post in Goma on the Rwandan border, the experts said.
On Nov. 20, they said, M23 defeated the Congolese army at the Goma airport and a mixture of rebel and Rwandan troops clandestinely entered into Goma from the Rwandan town of Giseny, just across the border.
They took control of the city, marching through downtown dressed in a combination of Rwandan and new M23 uniforms, the experts said.
The experts said that former Rwandan officers, Congolese government officials and Congolese officers estimated that roughly 500 soldiers from Rwanda's 73rd and 75th battalions based in Gisenyi supported the M23 during the seizure of Goma.