US special operations forces have arrived in the east of DR Congo to help in the fight against a feared jihadist militia enjoying “sanctuary” in the region’s nature parks, US and Congolese sources said Wednesday.
The office of President Felix Tshisekedi said Sunday that Kinshasa had authorized the deployment in support of the Congolese army against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels.
The size of the contingent was unknown but around a dozen soldiers could be seen in official photos of a meeting Sunday between Tshisekedi and a delegation led by US Ambassador to Kinshasa Mike Hammer.
Congolese and US sources confirmed to an AFP correspondent in the region the presence of some of the soldiers at a base in the Virunga natural park known for its endangered mountain gorillas.
The presidency said at the weekend that the contingent would also support rangers in Garamba, which like Virunga has “become a sanctuary for terrorist forces.”
The mission is set to last “several weeks” and will target the ADF, which the statement described as a “branch of Daech” — or the Islamic State group (IS).
It said the force was part of a “global coalition” against IS.
Meanwhile, the Congolese army said Wednesday that it had seized back “the last bastions” of a rebel coalition in the Hauts Plateaux region, in the east of the country, after a week of fighting.
The operation was launched Thursday after an attack by fighters of the Makanika Twigwaneho Ngumino/FNL coalition of armed groups who tried to seize a military position, he added.
The Hauts Plateaux region is the scene of a conflict between armed groups formed on a communal basis, notably Tutsi Congolese with distant Rwandan origins, the Banyamulenge, and other communities.
The coalition “Twigwaneho” (self-defense) and “Ngumino” (We Stay Here in Kinyamulenge) is composed of members of the Banyamulenge community.
These armed groups were joined by Colonel Michel Rukundo Makanika who deserted the army in early 2020 with a group of soldiers.
The ADF emerged as a rebel movement in neighboring Uganda in 1996 but has been active in the eastern DR Congo for nearly 30 years, accused of killing thousands of civilians.
Since April 2019, IS has claimed responsibility for some of its attacks, and in March this year, Washington placed the ADF on a list of “terrorist organizations” affiliated with IS.
In a statement last week, the US embassy in the DRC said the special ops team would also help rangers in the Virunga and Garumba parks to “combat trafficking in wild species and other illegal activities.”