Connect to share and comment
Rwanda has moved hundreds of Congolese rebels who took refuge in the country to a camp further from its border, a senior government official told AFP on Tuesday.
At total of 682 fighters from one faction of the M23 rebels crossed into Rwanda in mid-March, after coming off worse in clashes with a rival wing.
M23, made up of army mutineers largely from the ethnic Tutsi community, has been fighting regular Democratic Republic of Congo army troops for the past year in the mineral-rich North Kivu province.
Rwanda has been accused of backing the group, a claim it denies.
"The decision to move them stems from the application of international conventions that dictate that refugees must be at least 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the border with their home country," Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs Minister Seraphine Mukantabana told AFP.
The M23 rebels were moved on Monday to a camp in the eastern Ngoma district, she said in an interview, adding that "they were free to move around within the camp".
Until Monday they had been held in a camp in Rwanda's northwest, an area close to the DR Congo border.
The fact that Rwanda has taken in several hundred men from M23 has fuelled suspicions among some analysts that Kigali backed the M23.
However Mukantabana insisted Kigali was simply applying humanitarian principles. She said the soldiers had been disarmed, separated from civilians and put into camps.
She said the disarmament was "tangible proof that Rwanda had nothing to do with M23."
Mukantabana said the M23 rebels were free to receive visits, that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was going to help them get back in touch with their families, and that they would receive counselling.
She said the soldiers were currently undergoing screening to see if they want to renounce their military status "definitively and on a voluntary basis."
Once the screening procedure is complete it will be up to the Rwandan government in conjunction with the ICRC and the UN refugee agency to determine whether "on a psychological level they have indeed renounced warfare", with the aim of requesting refugee status.
Mukantabana reckoned that "almost everyone will renounce" their military status.
Anyone not wishing to renounce his military status will "not be granted asylum in our country," she said, adding that the government and the ICRC would have to decide what to do with those cases.
Questions however remain as to the fate of M23 leaders targeted by UN sanctions now in Rwanda, such as the group's former political chief Jean-Marie Runiga and one of its top military commanders Baudouin Ngaruye.
The minister said it would be "premature" to comment before the question of possible refugee status for those cases has been decided.
Fighting within M23 ranks first broke out in late February, after Runiga's dismissal, when his supporters clashed with those of the movement's military chief, Sultani Makenga.
Old rivalries between the two deepened over the signing of a UN-brokered framework accord for peace in the mineral-rich, strife-torn east of DR Congo on February 24.
The chief of the Runiga/Ngaruye wing of M23, Bosco Ntaganda, a feared Congolese warlord nicknamed "The Terminator", crossed into Rwanda at the same time as his men.
He presented himself at the US embassy -- in circumstances that have yet to be clarified -- and was transferred to the International Criminal Court, where he has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.