NAIROBI, Kenya — The Democratic Republic of Congo shut its border with Rwanda on Friday afternoon after one of its soldiers was killed after he injured two police officers while reportedly inside Rwandan territory — bringing to a head monthslong tensions that have raised the specter of war in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
The border closure came hours after Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense announced that a Congolese soldier that morning had opened fire and wounded two security forces at the country’s border. A Rwandan police officer “shot back in self defense,” the ministry said in a statement, killing the Congolese solder “25 meters inside Rwandan territory.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what had set off the firefight at the border, but relations between the two countries have soured in recent weeks, with Congo accusing Rwanda of supporting a rebel group that it is battling in its mineral-rich but restive eastern regions.
The simmering tensions threatened to further destabilize the troubled region, which has already endured years of violence, weak governance and corruption, along with brutal insurgencies. The escalation in violence has led to accusations of cross-border attacks and the kidnapping of soldiers from Rwanda, along with protests and reports of hate speech and discrimination against speakers of Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda.
The rebel group the March 23 Movement, or M23, has for years clashed with government forces, and in 2012, briefly took over Goma, the capital of the eastern North Kivu province.
The group resumed hostilities late last year, after blaming the government for failing to provide amnesty to its soldiers and incorporate them into the military as part of a 2009 peace agreement. The rebel group’s forces consist mostly of Tutsis, the same ethnic group as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and U.N. experts have accused his government of extensively backing the group.
As the fighting has intensified, the M23 this week seized Bunagana, a hub of cross-border trade in North Kivu, pushing many of the town’s residents to flee to neighboring Uganda. The capture incensed Congolese officials, who accused Rwanda of assisting an “invasion” in their territory.
Rwanda has denied backing the offensive, but that didn’t stop Congolese officials from suspending bilateral agreements with the country on Thursday.
“The security situation in the East of the country continues to deteriorate, and fundamentally because Rwanda seeks to occupy our land, rich in gold, coltan and cobalt, for their own exploitation and profit,” Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, said in a statement. “This is an economic war for the battle of resources, fought by Rwanda’s terrorist gangs.”
The relations between Rwanda and Congo had been getting better, but deteriorated after Congo allowed Uganda and Burundi to help pursue rebels in its territory starting late last year. In a region where competing nations have long used militias as proxies, this left “Rwanda increasingly marginalized,” said Nelleke van de Walle, the Great Lakes project director for the International Crisis Group.
This week, as the diplomatic standoff between the two Central African nations deepened, demonstrators took to the streets of Goma to denounce Rwanda. During one of the protests, Gen. Sylvain Ekenge, the spokesman for the military governor of North Kivu province, told demonstrators, “Rwanda does not like us. We are not afraid of it and we will fight it,” adding, “If it wants war, it will have war.”
The United Nations on Friday warned of an increase in documented hate speech cases in Congo, saying that politicians, community leaders and members of the diaspora were disseminating it.
“Hate speech fuels the conflict by exacerbating mistrust between communities,” Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and Alice Nderitu, the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said in a statement. “It focuses on aspects that have previously mattered less, incites a discourse of ‘us vs. them’, and corrodes social cohesion between communities that have previously lived together.”
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya has called for the deployment of a regional force from the East African Community, a seven-nation body that both Rwanda and Congo belong to. The regional commanders from member states are set to meet in Nairobi on Sunday to finalize preparations. Congo has welcomed the proposal by Mr. Kenyatta, but said it would not accept the participation of Rwanda in the joint forces.
For Rwanda, the standoff with Congo comes as it prepares to host the biannual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting starting Monday, which will bring together leaders from the association’s 54 member states. It is also preparing to receive asylum seekers deported from Britain — a contentious scheme that was halted by multiple legal challenges this week.
Steve Wembi contributed reporting from Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo.