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Rwanda: Inside Kinshasa’s Plan to Hire American Mercenaries to Fight M23

In 2023, DR Congo’s authorities sought to hire 2,500 military contractors from Latin America to fight in North Kivu province, where a government-led coalition is pitted against the M23 rebels, a UN Group of Experts report indicates.

Led by Erik Prince, the founder of former security company Blackwater and current head of Frontier Resources Group (FSG), the plan to deploy mercenaries from Columbia, Mexico and Argentina “was reinitiated” in June and mid-July 2023, the UN report of December 2023 says.

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Contractors from eastern Europe have been fighting alongside the government coalition since at least 2022. Hundreds of Romanian military contractors are said to be present in North Kivu, according to Romanian media reports. Other reports say there could be up to 2,000 mercenaries in the conflict-ridden region.

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The Latin American mercenaries’ task would be to “[stop] M23 advance and secure mining areas” in the volatile eastern DR Congo.

Military barracks were under construction near Sake, a town about 25 kilometres from the provincial capital Goma, and would host an initial 250 contractors to arrive in late July 2023. By then, equipment had already arrived at the site, the report says.

The plan was engineered by President Felix Tshisekedi’s Privy Councillor Kahumbu Buka Mandungu, alias Kao.

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In the report submitted to the Security Council, The UN experts said they had evidence that Prince was also collecting information that could be used against MONUSCO in order to fasten the UN mission’s departure from eastern DR Congo and the deployment of his mercenaries.

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Tshisekedi has been pushing for the “accelerated” withdrawal of MONUSCO since at least mid-2023. The UN mission began withdrawing its troops in early 2024, starting with South Kivu province. It plans to conclude its withdrawal in December 2024.

The UN report says the plan to conclude a contract with Prince was halted, although it was not clear whether the decision was temporary or permanent.

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The Congolese government has been called out for recruiting mercenaries in an armed conflict, something that is prohibited by international law.

The presence of mercenaries in the conflict in eastern DR Congo has raised the risk of escalation, at a time regional and international organisations are calling for a return to peace negotiations through the Luanda and Nairobi processes.

Kinshasa is also accused of abandoning the peace processes and pursuing a military campaign.

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Since early 2024, an escalation in hostilities between the M23 rebels and the government coalition – which includes troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Burundian forces, and militias like the FDLR, a UN-sanctioned terrorist group linked to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda – has raised fears for a wider regional conflict.

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The M23 rebels accuse the coalition of carrying out genocide against Congolese Tutsi communities.

Eastern DR Congo has been volatile for nearly 30 years.

The provinces of South Kivu, North Kivu and Ituri are home to more than 130 armed groups that are accused of atrocities and human rights violations. Multiple regional and international interventions have failed to end decades of insecurity.

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