Kenyan soldiers landed in the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, as part of a regional military operation targeting rebels in the conflict-torn region.
Their arrival comes as the M23 militia has surged across the DRC’s North Kivu province, capturing swaths of territory and inflaming tensions in central Africa.
Leaders of the seven-nation East African Community (EAC) bloc, in which Kenya is the regional heavyweight, agreed in April to establish a joint force to help restore security in the mineral-rich DRC.
This week, Kenya’s parliament approved the deployment of just more than 900 troops to the DRC as part of the joint EAC military force.
Two planes carrying about 100 Kenyan troops touched down in Goma airport on Saturday, according to AFP reporters present, where they were greeted by local dignitaries.
Kenyan Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Obiero told reporters that their mission is “to conduct offensive operations” alongside Congolese forces and to assist in disarming militias.
“Insecurity is something which breaks up the social fabric,” he added, explaining that the Kenyan contingent would also work alongside humanitarian agencies in a bid to bring stability to the eastern DRC.
More than 120 armed groups are active across eastern Congo, many of which are a legacy of regional wars that flared at the turn of the century.
Heavy fighting between the army and the M23 was ongoing in Rugari in North Kivu on Friday, and power was disrupted in Goma, an important commercial hub of about 1 million people.
A mostly Congolese Tutsi group, the M23 first leaped to prominence in 2012, briefly capturing Goma before being driven out.
But after lying dormant for years, the rebels took up arms again in late 2021 claiming the DRC had failed to honor a pledge to integrate them into the army, among other grievances.
In June, the M23 captured the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border.
In recent weeks, the rebels have won a string of victories against the Congolese army in North Kivu, dramatically increasing the territory under their control.
The United Nations’ humanitarian agency OCHA estimates that recent fighting in North Kivu has displaced 188,000 people.
The M23’s resurgence has cratered relations between the DRC and its smaller neighbor Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the M23.
Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador at the end of last month, for example, while also recalling its envoy from Kigali.
In parallel to the EAC’s military operation, diplomatic efforts are underway to reduce tensions in eastern DRC.
Angolan President Joao Lourenco visited Rwanda on Friday, and he met Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in the DRC on Saturday.
“We are all concerned about the situation in the east of the DRC today,” Angolan Foreign Minister Tete Antonio told reporters in Kinshasa after the presidents met.
Kenya’s former president Uhuru Kenyatta is also expected in the DRC capital for talks on Sunday.
Leaders of the seven-nation East African Community decided to create a regional military force to restore peace in the DRC in June.
The force will be under Kenyan command. But its total size and scope remains unclear.