RUTSHURU, Democratic Republic of Congo — It’s hard to know where rebel territory begins and ends here. A few hundred yards of thick forest is all that separates the two sides and the rebels, made up of mostly army defectors, wear the same uniforms.
At a nearby rebel base — which in a bout of irony was once used by the United Nations for a program to integrate former rebels into the Congolese army — a rebel spokesman, dressed in immaculate camouflage and a beret, spoke to GlobalPost.
“All these allegations that Rwanda is supporting us, they are false,” Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama said.
He was referring to claims made in a leaked UN report — one of several in recent months — that neighboring Rwanda and Uganda are providing troops and weapons to the rebels — known as the M23. The report says Rwanda is not only backing the rebels, it is commanding them.
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While Rwanda denies the claims, they wouldn’t be all that surprising. The M23 is made up of former Rwanda-backed militants that fought the Congolese army for years before striking a peace deal in 2009. The former fighters were brought into the fold of the national army. But a contingent of the former militants, unhappy with how the deal was implemented, broke off and resumed the fight.
While M23 says it only wants the original peace agreement honored, they have grown in notoriety by annexing a large swathe of territory in eastern Congo.
Rwanda’s interest in supporting the rebels would likely stem from the 1994 genocide. At that time, ethnic Hutu death squads killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. When the Tutsi fought back, many Hutus fled to neighboring countries, including what is now Congo. Chasing the killers, Rwanda invaded Congo twice — in 1996 and 1998 — triggering a regional war that has led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, mostly from disease and starvation.
Eastern Congo is also rich with minerals, making it a source of both potential wealth and instability for Rwanda.
According to the leaked UN report, M23 commanders are receiving “direct military orders” from the Rwandan army, which is acting on instructions from Rwandan Minister of Defense General James Kabarebe, a close ally of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
“While Rwandan officials coordinated the creation of the rebel movement as well as its major military operations, Uganda's more subtle support to M23 allowed the rebel group’s political branch to operate from within Kampala and boost its external relations,” wrote the authors of the report, which was submitted to the UN Security Council sanctions committee last week.
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Despite angry denials from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and the seat of government, a number of European countries have nevertheless suspended aid to the country. US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson called on Kagame to denounce the rebels.
Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade Congolese general who goes by the nickname, “The Terminator,” leads the M23 uprising. Other rebel commanders are mostly Tutsis, sharing ethnicity with Rwanda's leaders, and are officers and former members of an earlier Rwanda-backed rebel group that threatened to overrun the regional capital of Goma in 2008.
The International Criminal Court has accused Ntaganda of war crimes. Human Rights Watch says the M23 has committed murder and rape and forcibly recruits child soldiers. The United Nations says that, since May, the M23 has recruited 250 children and killed dozens of deserters and prisoners of war.
“M23 uses boys on the frontlines as cover for advancing units, often after a week of training. Others act as porters, intelligence operatives and bodyguards. The rebels use young girls as cooks and as commanders’ wives,” the UN report says.
The fighting has forced close to half a million people to flee their homes, according to aid agencies.
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M23 has pushed to within 20 miles of Goma and has at times threatened to take the lakeside town. Although the rebel ranks are thought to number only about 1,250, they have succeeded in controlling a large chunk of North Kivu, the mineral-rich province bordering both Rwanda and Uganda.
Attempts by the rebels to woo leaders in South Kivu, or warlords and disaffected soldiers from Ituri province to the north, have so far been unsuccessful.
But in North Kivu, M23 is firmly in control. In Rutshuru, the de facto rebel capital, they are creating a civil administration, complete with ministries and a tax system. Street workers swept the roads and new signs declared the area a corruption-free zone.
The group’s ability to so easily control North Kivu suggests they are getting outside help.
As one Goma-based diplomat put it: “Every successful rebellion in this part of the world has had a rear base in a neighboring country. This one is no different.”