Uganda has threatened to withdraw from U.S.- and U.N.-backed regional efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, and to restore peace in Somalia, if the world body fails to clear it of charges of supporting an armed mutiny in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The threat, which was contained in a Ugandan letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to 15 members of the U.N. Security Council, follows last month's leak of a report by an independent U.N. Group of Experts alleging that Rwanda and Uganda are sponsoring a military mutiny in eastern Congo.
President Yoweri Museveni's special envoy, Ruhakana Rugunda, Lt. General Katumba Wamala, the commander of Ugandan land forces, and other senior officials, traveled to New York last week to underscore Kampala's anger over the panel's findings. In his meeting with U.N. officials and diplomats, Rugunda expressed "disappointment and grave concern about the false accusations against Uganda" contained in the Group of Experts report, according to a Ugandan statement.
"The government expressed that it was unacceptable to malign Uganda's contribution to regional peace and security by alleging that it supports the M23 Group," read the statement. "The government informed that Uganda's withdrawal from regional peace, including Somalia, CAR, etc. would become inevitable unless the UN corrects the false accusations made against Uganda."
The Security Council panel, known as the Group of Experts, alleged that "senior government of Uganda (GOU) officials have ... provided support to M23 in the form of direct troops reinforcements in DRC territory, munitions deliveries, technical assistance, joint planning, political advise, and facilitation of external relations," according to the confidential report, which was reviewed by Turtle Bay.
"Units of the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF) and the Rwandan Defence Forces (RDF) jointly supported M23 in a series of attacks on July 12 to take over the major towns of Rutushuru territory" as well as a Rwandan military base.
The M23 movement was founded by Laurent Nkunda, a former Congolese general who led a rebellion against his former comrades in eastern Congo. But the mutiny was commanded by Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese rebel and accused war criminal who appointed a general of the Congolese army (known as the FARDC), in 2005 as part of a peace deal and Col. Sultani Makenga, another defector, who is likely to face U.N. sanctions for his role in the mutiny. But the supreme leader of the M23, the panel alleged, is James Kabarebe, Rwanda's defense minister, a charge the Rwandan government has denied.
The Group of Experts accused the rebel movement of extensive human rights abuses, including the forced recruitment of hundreds of young boys and girls into the movement, and the "extra-judicial executions of dozens of recruits and prisoners of war."
In August and September, Colonel Makenga ordered a notorious Congolese militia group, Raia Mutomboki, "to carry out brutal ethnically motivated attacks, burning over 800 homes and killings hundreds of civilians from Congolese communities" in eastern Congo, according to the experts' report.
The group of experts has recommended that the U.N. Security Council sanctions committed call on Uganda and Rwanda to "cease" violations of the arms embargo and to submit regular reports on what measures they are taking "to halt the activities of the M23." It also calls on member states to review and consider future military assistance to Rwanda and Uganda."
Security Council diplomats are unwilling, for now, to single out Rwanda and Uganda for condemnation in the council. Any effort to pressure Kigali to halt its alleged support for the M23 will be complicated by Rwanda's recent election to the U.N. Security Council, where it will begin serving a two-year term on January 1.
The expert group first accused Rwanda of sponsoring the M23 back in June, prompting the United States, Britain, and other European governments to freeze military assistance and other aid.
But council diplomats have shown less enthusiasm for taking on Uganda, which provides a vital logistic base for U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, and which is leading diplomatic efforts to end the violence in eastern Congo. They also note that Uganda stands accused of playing a far less central role in backing the M23 than Rwanda.
Throughout the week, senior council diplomats and U.N. officials have sought to keep the Ugandan letter secret, and downplayed the gravity of Kampala's threat, saying that the country's 6,500 troops serving in a U.N.-backed African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia have not been formally ordered back to the barracks. They hope that they can gradually convince the Ugandans to back down.
Some officials say they suspect that Uganda simply needs to blow off steam and that they will recognize that it is not in their long-term interest to withdraw from regional peace efforts, which have boosted their political standing in the region. Earlier this week, Secretary General Ban reached out to President Museveni to convince him to cool down. But the issue is not likely to disappear. The Group of Experts is scheduled to brief the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on Monday. And diplomatic sources say they will present new evidence of alleged Rwandan and Uganda support for the mutiny.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.