(Reuters) – Heavy weapons fire broke out between Rwandan and Congolese troops near their border on Wednesday after the Congolese government said Rwandan forces crossed the frontier and seized a Congolese soldier.

Rwandan rebels have long skirmished with troops from Democratic Republic of Congo, but it is rare for soldiers from the two armies to clash directly outside of occasional accusations of shelling.

Rwanda officially withdrew troops from eastern Congo from a previous war a decade ago.

“Elements from the Rwandan army crossed the border not far from Kibumba around 3:30 a.m. and took a Congolese corporal, which provoked a reaction from our soldiers there who opened fire,” Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said.

The gunfire eased off after the exchanges in the early hours, but resumed again later in the day.

“The Rwandan army attacked our positions at the border with heavy artillery,” governor for the North Kivu province Julien Paluku told Reuters.

“They are advancing on our positions, naturally we have responded but we don’t want it to escalate into a conflict between the two countries,” he added.

It was not immediately clear whether Rwandan troops were on Congolese territory. Rwandan government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Renewed tensions between the two neighbours may undermine international efforts to bring stability to Congo’s mineral-rich, lawless east and the wider region after years of conflict.

The two countries have fought two wars in two decades in eastern Congo. Violence has often been prompted by Rwandan interventions in Congolese territory, which it says are required to hunt down Hutu militia that fled Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

The eastern province of North Kivu is where Congo’s army, backed by U.N. peacekeepers, defeated the Tutsi-led M23 rebellion last year. Rwanda denied allegations by Congo and United Nations officials that it had backed the rebellion.

Numerous rebel groups still operate in the eastern provinces and the Congolese government has vowed to target them. General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, told a news conference on Wednesday fighting had taken place and said the United Nations would investigate the clash.

A Reuters reporter said that several Rwandan army helicopters were circling above the Kigali airport on Wednesday, although it was not clear if they were linked to the operation. Reuters


Rwanda and DR Congo ‘battle over kidnapped soldier’

Democratic Republic of Congo government soldiers in the east pictured in 2012 Friction in between DR Congo and its neighbour has led to decades of instability in the east

Rwandan forces and troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo are fighting each other on the border, the Congolese information minister says.

Lambert Mende told the BBC the battle began when a unit of Rwanda soldiers crossed over the border and attacked in early on Wednesday.

After fighting for nearly two hours, the Rwandans kidnapped an army corporal and went home, he said.

Clashes resumed when the Congolese learnt the officer had been killed.

The Rwandan authorities have yet to comment on the violence.

The neighbours have had a fractious relationship since the 1994 genocide when those accused of involvement in the killings of an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus set up a militia in eastern DR Congo.

People carrying their belongings flee fighting near Kibumba - 2008 Over the years residents near the border with Rwanda have often had to flee their homes because of conflict

Mr Mende said the fighting was in Buhumba in North Kivu province.

The Rwandan soldiers came over the border at about 04:30 local time (03:30 GMT), he told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

He said the fighting broke out again in the afternoon when Congolese soldiers heard the news about their captured colleague.

“There is now fighting. There are also talks – we need really to know what is happening with them,” Mr Mende said.

Rwanda has been accused by the UN of playing a part in the unrest in DR Congo over the years, a charge it denies.

Most recently it was accused of backing a rebellion by the M23 – a mainly ethnic Tutsi movement, which was defeated by the Congolese military and a special UN brigade in November.


Troublesome neighbours

  • April-June 1994: Genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda
  • June 1994: Paul Kagame’s Tutsi rebels take power in Rwanda, Hutu fighters flee into Zaire (DR Congo)
  • Rwanda’s army enters eastern Zaire to pursue Hutu fighters
  • 1997: Laurent Kabila’s AFDL, backed by Rwanda, takes power in Kinshasa
  • 1998: Rwanda accuses Kabila of not acting against Hutu rebels and tries to topple him, sparking five years of conflict
  • 2003: War officially ends but Hutu and Tutsi militias continue to clash in eastern DR Congo
  • 2008: Tutsi-led CNDP rebels march on North Kivu capital, Goma – 250,000 people flee
  • 2009: Rwanda and DR Congo agree peace deal and CNDP integrated into Congolese army
  • 2012: M23 mutiny led by former CNDP leader Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda
  • 2013: M23, which Rwanda denies backing, is defeated
  • BBC