The M23 rebels, who brought havoc to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between April 2012 and November 2013, have denied recent reports that Burundian rebels have infiltrated their ranks in eastern Congo.
Non-state armed groups, such as rebel groups and militias, are allegedly using the cover of refugee camps in Rwanda to recruit Burundian refugees, as revealed by IBTimes UK in August 2015. The recruits were supposedly trained on Rwandan soil before being sent to DRC, from which they were expected to proceed to the Gare du Nord bus station in Burundi's capital Bujumbura.
In a report published by Radio France Internationale (RFI) on 5 January, DRC security services voiced their concern after intercepting dozens of Burundian rebels on Congolese soil (see: Timeline: Burundian rebel arrests in DRC) claiming they were working on the behalf of a number of Burundian opposition parties.
Burundian rebel infiltration?
After recently arresting 36 new Burundian rebels in the province of South Kivu, a volatile region straddling the borders of Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, Congolese services told RFI they have a clearer idea of the extent of rebel infiltration.
Divisions along ethnic lines and opposed regional interests in South Kivu have proved fertile ground for local rebellions against DRC's government. While the area is also said to host Burundian rebel activity that resulted from past conflicts in Burundi — such as the 1993-2005 civil war that left some 300,000 dead — the Congolese services claim a new rebellion could be forming.
These claims echo individual cases of alleged Burundian refugee recruitment by opposition parties that were documented by international officials who shared their findings with advocacy organisation, Refugee International.
Indeed, as reported by IBTimes UK, a number of Burundian refugees said they were told that they would fight on behalf of the Burundian opposition Movement for Solidarity (MSD) party, while others said that another party, the National Forces of Liberation (FNL) began recruiting in the camp in August 2015. Refugee International, however, was not able to confirm these alleged connections.
Security services said the rebel suspects declared working for Alexis Sinduhije — president of the MSD — and deputy of Burundi's former Intelligence chief of staff and coup leader, Major General Godefroid Niyombare. The authorities also believe another rebel group, Union des forces patriotiques révolutionnaires (Union of Revolutionary Patriotic Forces), is brewing in the Kibira forest in Burundi.
The suspects confirmed, according to the security sources, they had had their pictures taken before commanders delivered them Congolese electoral cards for the sum of FBU 25,000 (£11) and FC 3,500 (£2.58). They also claim that there had been hundreds of young people to have been trained before being sent to the Rusizi river to cross into DRC.
Mid-July 2015, security forces in Burundi arrested about 170 suspected rebels and seized a number of weapons in the north-eastern province of Muyinga after clashes in the northern provinces of Kayanza and Cibitoke. Burundian rebel general Leonard Ngendakumana — who took part in the failed coup in May — claimed that a number of soldiers loyal to the putschists were involved in the clashes.
M23, Rwanda deny links to Burundian rebels
It is also during one of the arrests that the Congolese authorities made the link between the M23 rebel military group — also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army — which mainly operates in the Kivus.
The M23, however, has denied rebel infiltration on the Congolese-Burundian border in a statement in which the group said it was "using this umpteenth occasion to specify that it is not even remotely linked to the situation that prevails in Burundi and reassures the opinion that none of its fighters is on the Congolese territory".
The "fantasy" government reports "only have [an] objective to create a diversion by turning the national and international opinion's attention from questions to which it has the constitutional obligation to give solutions (such as) elections, security", Elie Mutela, the cabinet director in the M23 president's office and a member of the rebels, said in the statement.
In December, the Rwandan government rebutted claims that Rwanda was recruiting, training and arming groups that have been carrying out attacks in Bujumbura from refugee camps in Rwanda. In a speech, Seraphine Mukantabana, Rwandan minister for disaster management and refugee affairs, described the allegations as "unfounded". There are currently 71,140 registered refugees in Rwanda.
"These are the same baseless accusations that different people keep on trading. There is no proof to it, like the names, pictures or other details of refugees they allege were recruited so that we can go and check if they ever lived in the camp and left as a result of recruitments. I don't see anything factual except just hearsay, and idle word of mouth," Mukantabana said.
Following the reports that some Burundian refugees had been recruited and went for military training to "attack the country", Burundi Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe, in December 2015 called on "these illegal activities to stop".
Timeline: Burundian rebel arrests in DRC
28 August 2015: After four suspects are apprehended in Uvira, DRC services find brand new Congolese electoral cards, which they claim were stolen by the M23 rebels in South Kivu before being distributed in Rwanda to suspected Burundian infiltrated rebels.
Early September: Some 24 individuals — including six minors — are arrested. The majority of them are from Kirundo, a province that shares borders with Rwanda. The suspected rebels said they had been staying in the refugee camps of Gashora and Mahama before being sent to two rebel training camps, Nyungwe and Higitumu, in Rwanda.
End September: Six suspected rebels are intercepted. Of these, three are identified as M23, including Aldabert Rugamba, a captain of Burundian nationality, who DRC services claim has worked for General Sultani Makenga, the military commander of M23.
October: Claude Arakaza, an ex-captain of the Burundian army, is arrested in the refugee camp of Lusenda, DRC, where Congolese services claim Arakaza, along with three other people, was trying to recruit rebel fighters. The authorities believe Arakaza moved to DRC with Jean-Marie Ntirampemba, a Burundian colonel, and around a hundred rebels, after the failed coup d'etat against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza in May 2015.