The fate of DR Congo’s aircraft which violated Rwanda’s airspace 26 years ago

On 9 November 2022 at 10:31

Mixed reactions have arisen over the recent violation of Rwanda’s airspace by a fighter jet belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which also briefly touched down on its land before making its way back on Monday 7th November 2022.

The Government of Rwanda strongly protested the violation which DRC also admitted through a statement.

It was not the first time the country violated Rwanda’s airspace. The latest incident which also triggered strained relations between both countries happened 26 years ago when the country bore the name of Zaïre.

At the time, Zaïre whose name later changed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was led by Mobutu Sese Seko.

Both countries were experiencing strained relations as Mobutu had settled individuals responsible for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi including armed soldiers of the defeated Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) nearby Rwanda’s border.

On Sunday 7th April 1996, an airplane Boeing 737 belonging to Air Zaïre took off from Kinshasa with 35 people onboard. These include 26 passengers and nine flight crew members. They were flying to Bukavu town through Goma.

Surprisingly, the place landed in Kamembe of Rusizi District in Rwanda’s Western Province instead of Bukavu.

At the time, Rwandan officials blocked it from taking off. The Government of Zaïre announced that the plane landed in Rwanda due to bad weather but Rwanda claimed that it was carrying weapons with intentions to destabilize its security.

The incident was followed by negotiations to release the plane but Rwanda rejected the request.

Two weeks later on 11nd April 1996, Rwanda allowed the flight crew and passengers to return home but withheld the aircraft.

A statement released by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the time indicated that passengers were taken to the airport to pick their belongings and continued their way back through Rusizi border where they were handed over to officials from Zaïre and Air Zaïre.

Tensions between Zaïre and Rwanda continued owing to preparations by refugees that had fled to the country to attack Rwanda.

In October 1996, Rwanda backed AFDL group of Laurent Desire Kabila during a struggle which overthrew Mobutu in May 1997.

On 11th July 1997, two months after ousting Mobutu, Rwanda handed over the aircraft that had been confiscated for one year and three months.

At the time, Radio Rwanda reported that the aircraft made its way back to Congo through Goma town.

Details did not emerge as to why the aircraft was released but there was a good progress on restoring bilateral ties. However, things fell apart in the year that followed and led to the Second Congo War.

On 11th July 1997, two months after ousting Mobutu, Rwanda handed over the aircraft that had been confiscated for one year and three months.