Belgium’s King Philippe ended his historic tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday in the eastern city of Bukavu, as the Congolese army repulsed a rebel attack further north.
The king visited Nobel laureate Denis Mukwege on the outskirts of the city, on the last leg of his six-day visit to the former Belgian colony.
Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war — which is rampant in eastern DRC.
But the Belgian sovereign’s visit came as rebels from the M23 group, some 300 kilometers further north, launched an assault on the strategic town of Bunagana.
The militia was later pushed out of the town, according to military officials.
M23 attacks have sent relations between the DRC and its neighboring central African state Rwanda into a nosedive.
The DRC accuses Rwanda of backing the group — an allegation Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
However, on Sunday, Mukwege also accused Rwanda of being behind the M23 and called on Belgium to help the DRC make its case to the international community.
“This royal visit is an exceptional act of courage,” the Nobel laureate said. “Visiting us at this time, when Congo is the victim of yet another aggression, is a strong humanitarian act.”
Belgium is the former colonial power in both the DRC and Rwanda.
Mukwege also criticized what he termed the “double standard” applied to the DRC.
“When Russia attacked Ukraine, all nations asked for this aggression to stop,” he said.
King Philippe did not address the public in Bukavu.
However, Belgian Cooperation Minister Meryame Kitir, who was travelling with the monarch, said that the DRC had the right “to defend its population against armed groups and any external interference.”
“Both the DRC and its neighbors must make internal efforts to improve the security situation,” she added.
Relations between the DRC and Rwanda have been strained since the mass arrival in eastern DRC of Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
The M23, a primarily Congolese Tutsi militia, is one of more than 120 armed groups active in eastern DRC.
Philippe is due to return to Belgium on Monday after his first visit to the DRC since ascending the throne in 2013.
His father, King Albert II, visited the country in 2010.
In a speech on Wednesday, the king expressed regret for the “paternalism, discrimination and racism” of colonial-era Congo.
“It led to abuse and humiliation,” Philippe said. He fell short of offering a full apology, however.
King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe’s great great grandfather, oversaw the conquest of what is now the DRC, governing the territory as his personal property between 1885 and 1908 before it became a Belgian colony.
Millions of people perished under a system of forced rubber collection under his rule, historians estimate.