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US sanctions military leaders accused of making violence worse in eastern Congo

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — The United States has imposed sanctions on six people it accuses of exacerbating violence in eastern Congo.

The sanctioned Rwandan and Congolese individuals “belong to one of four key militias or armed forces contributing to instability in the eastern (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and perpetrating serious human rights abuses,” including targeting children and systematic sexual assault, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement Thursday.

The new round of economic penalties comes amid a recent spike in armed conflict along Congo’s northeastern border with Rwanda. Three decades of violence in the region displaced over 6 million people, according to the U.N., with the crisis intensifying since the rebel group M23 staged a resurgence in November 2021.

M23, whose intelligence commander Bernard Byamungu is among those sanctioned, is one of more than 120 armed groups in the region fighting for control of valuable mineral resources, territory or community protection. Mass killings by are frequent, and the violence has triggered an exodus of over 1 million people.

The U.S. also levied economic penalties on the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Hutu-led rival militia to M23; the Congolese armed forces; and the Rwandan Defense Forces, all of which have been accused of committing human rights abuses in Congo for the past decade or more.

Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the U.S. sanctions are mostly symbolic.

“By sanctioning people of a certain level, (the U.S.) sends a message to say, ’We see what’s happening,'” he said.

Sematumba said current sanctions by a variety of external actors are too dispersed.

“Maybe there would be more of an impact if these three blocs (the U.S, U.N. and European Union) coordinated their sanctions,” he said.

On July 29, the EU sanctioned seven individuals involved in the conflict, including three of the same people targeted Thursday by the U.S. sanctions. It is unclear whether these armed group leaders have substantial economic dealings with U.S.-based companies.