Blinken says he discussed with Kagame reports that Rwanda supports Congo rebel group

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday he discussed with Rwandan President Paul Kagame credible reports that Rwanda continued to support the M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Blinken said both Kagame and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi had agreed to engage in direct talks with each other to address the fighting.

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Blinken arrived late Wednesday in Rwanda, the final stop of a three-nation trip to Africa, hot on the heels of a visit to the continent by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The US diplomat has sought to woo African nations, which have largely steered clear of backing Washington against Moscow in the Ukraine war, by calling for an “equal” partnership with the continent.

His visit comes after an unpublished independent investigation for the UN, seen by AFP last week, said Rwandan troops had attacked soldiers inside the DRC and aided M23 rebels, a primarily Tutsi rebel group.

The M23 has captured swathes of territory in eastern DRC in recent months, causing tensions to spike between Kigali and Kinshasa, which has repeatedly accused Kagame's government of backing the notorious militia.

In the DRC on Tuesday, Blinken said the United States was “very concerned by credible reports that Rwanda has supported the M23,” adding that he would discuss the issue with Kagame, whose government has consistently denied the claims.

In a statement released on Monday, Human Rights Watch called on Blinken to “urgently signal that there will be consequences for the government's repression and abuse in Rwanda and beyond its borders.”

“Failing to address Rwanda's abysmal human rights record has emboldened its officials to continue to commit abuse, even beyond its borders,” said Lewis Mudge, HRW's Central Africa director.

The rights watchdog urged Blinken “to highlight systematic human rights violations, including crackdowns on opponents and civil society, both within and across Rwanda's borders.”

Opposition leader Victoire Ingabire echoed HRW's calls, telling AFP that Blinken “should raise the issue of journalists and politicians who are in prison” for challenging Kagame's government.

“Blinken has to ask our government to open up political space to everyone who wants to be active in politics,” said Ingabire, who spent six years in jail on terrorism charges.

Blinken is also facing calls to press for the release of Paul Rusesabagina, the “Hotel Rwanda” hero who is credited with saving hundreds of lives during the 1994 genocide.

A US permanent resident, Rusesabagina is a fierce critic of Kagame and was sentenced to a 25-year prison term last year on terrorism charges after a plane he believed was bound for Burundi landed in Kigali in August 2020.

Read more: Blinken kicks off Africa tour to counter Russia’s growing influence