(Adds government, U.N. spokesmen, background, details)
By John Kanyunyu
KIBATI, Congo, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Up to 2,000 Rwandan troops crossed into eastern Congo on Tuesday under a December agreement between the two countries to hunt down Rwandan Hutu rebels, Congo’s government and United Nations peacekeepers said.
After an offensive last year by Congolese Tutsi rebels, who say they need to defend themselves against the Rwandan Hutu fighters, the Rwandan and Congolese governments agreed on Dec. 5 to launch joint operations against the Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels.
"The operations are beginning. We have invited Rwandan officers with their security contingents for their safety. They are observers ... The operations to disarm the FDLR are planned for length of 10 to 15 days," Lambert Mende, Congo’s information minister and government spokesman, told Reuters.
The size of the Rwandan deployment appeared to be more than a simple observation mission.
"We are not going to discuss the issues of these operations with the media. There is an operational plan for the whole operation and it is a secret document," Rwandan military spokeswoman Major Jill Rutaremara told Reuters in Kigali.
"I can’t confirm whether there are troops in DRC because all those are operational questions," she said.
A Reuters reporter at Kibati, just north of Goma, North Kivu’s provincial capital, saw Congolese army soldiers stopping all vehicles, including U.N. peacekeepers, from going north.
"This morning between 1,500 and 2,000 RDF (Rwanda Defence Forces) crossed the border in the Munigi-Kibati zone," Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesman for the U.N. force, MONUC, said.
"We saw them deploy, leaving Kibati heading north on the Goma-Rutshuru axis," he said. MONUC, the biggest U.N. peace force, said it had not been involved in planning the operation.
Congolese army forces were on the move with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and mobile rocket launchers, Dietrich said.
YEARS OF BLOODSHED
The presence in eastern Congo of rebels of the mostly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), many of whom participated in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, has been at the heart of more than a decade of bloodshed.
A 1998-2003 war sucked in the armies of half a dozen nearby countries, including Rwanda and neighbouring Uganda, which each backed rival rebel forces. The war and a resulting humanitarian catastrophe have killed an estimated 5.4 million people.
Rwanda and Congo have agreed on several occasions to cooperate to tackle the Hutu rebels, but have failed to do so in the past amid widespread accusations that Congolese government forces, who are notoriously ill-disciplined and ineffective, have sided with the FDLR Hutu fighters.
Fighting flared again in North Kivu last October, when the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a Congolese Tutsi rebel group led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda ended a ceasefire and launched an offensive against Goma.
The fighting, which killed hundreds of people, triggered a humanitarian crisis by displacing around 250,000 people and prompted fears of a fresh regional war.
U.N. experts told the Security Council last month that the governments of both Rwanda and Congo had been backing rebel groups in the conflict, and recommended targeted sanctions such as travel bans and freezing of assets against some individuals.
Since then diplomatic efforts to achieve a peaceful solution have picked up pace, with frequent high-level contacts between representatives of the two countries, even though they have no formal diplomatic relations.
The presence of Rwandan forces on Congolese soil with the acquiescence of Congolese President Joseph Kabila reflects the inability of Congo’s army to tackle the threat from rebels on its soil, even with backing from the U.N. peacekeeping force.
The operation also mirrors a Ugandan-led multinational operation launched on Dec. 14 further north in Congo’s Orientale province, against Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
That operation appears to have backfired, allowing LRA leader Joseph Kony to escape and unleashing a wave of bloodletting by his fighters who have killed over 600 Congolese civilians, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says. (Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa; writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Dominic Evans)