Rebel group denies preventing returnees from leaving Congo

A Rwandan rebel movement based in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Forces democratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), has dismissed as unfounded reports that it had prevented some 3,000 former combatants and civilians from returning to Rwanda.

"The FDLR has always supported the right of any Rwandan refugee to return freely to his homeland," Augustin Dukuze, the FDLR spokesman, said on Saturday.

In a statement, he said his organisation neither had the will nor the capacity to prevent anyone from returning to Rwanda. Dukuze's statement was in response to news reports published on 20 January, quoting the spokesman of the UN Mission in the DRC, Hamadoun Toure, as saying that some Hutu militants opposed to the voluntary repatriation of their countrymen had obstructed former fighters from leaving the forests of North Kivu Province.

Dukuze said on Saturday that although some refugees had chosen to return to Rwanda in recent months, the Rwandan government and MONUC's hopes that the November 2003 return of FDLR commander Paul Rwarakabije would provoke "massive defections" of the former combatants had not materialised.

He urged MONUC to consider FDLR concerns on the disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation (DDR) programme in Rwanda, saying “forced” repatriation of the refugees would fail and "might even complicate the precarious situation prevalent in the DRC as well as in the Great Lakes region.

The Congolese government has outlawed the FDLR and ordered it out of the country. Many Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994 after Hutu militants killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus.

MONUC, has for the last two years supported a voluntary repatriation programme for former Rwandan combatants and their dependents, once opposed to the government in Kigali. The numbers of those returning home rose sharply after Rwarakabije went home.

Of the 14,000 fighters and their dependents estimated to be in the Congo, 5,056 have returned home under the DDR programme for armed foreign groups in the DRC.

South African UN troops are deployed in the Kivus to protect UN personnel trying to urge the Rwandans to leave the forests.