WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States moved to block U.S. military aid to Rwanda because of its support for the M23 Congolese rebel group believed to use child soldiers, the State Department said on Thursday.
The sanctions also apply to the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, according to the U.S. State Department. It was unclear whether those nations receive U.S. military assistance.
"Our goal is to work with countries who have been listed to ensure that any involvement in child soldiers - any involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers - stop," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Rwanda was sanctioned because of its "support for the M23, a rebel group which continues to actively recruit and abduct children" and to threaten the stability of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
M23 is a Tutsi-dominated rebellion of former Congolese soldiers that began taking parts of eastern Congo last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal.
Rwanda will not receive U.S. International Military Education and Training funds, which help train foreign militaries, nor will it get U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which funds the sale of U.S. military materiel and services, Harf said.
Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, spokesman for the Rwanda Defense Forces, said his country should not be held responsible for events outside its control.
"It is surprising that Rwanda would be liable for matters that are neither on its territory, nor in its practices," he said. "As a long term partner of the Rwanda Defense Forces, the United States has ample evidence that our forces have never tolerated the use of children in combat."
"Rwanda's commitment to a sustainable solution that seeks to bring an end to the DRC conflict and its consequences, including the use of child soldiers, remains unchanged," he added.
"The collaboration between the Government of Rwanda and the United States remains strong, particularly in the field of peacekeeping, and Rwanda will continue to hold its forces to the highest standards of professionalism and discipline," he added.
Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, said she was not aware of Syria receiving any U.S. military assistance. She also said she did not believe Syria or Myanmar receive such aid and would check on whether or not Sudan did.
Three other countries whose militaries are known to recruit and use child soldiers, however, received waivers from the U.S. sanctions - Chad, South Sudan and Yemen, another State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia received partial waivers, the official said, adding that the Obama administration has decided such exemptions "would be in the national interest of the United States."
By law, the U.S. State Department must keep track of nations whose governments recruit and use children as soldiers as part of its annual report on human trafficking. The 10 countries affected by Thursday's actions were all cited in the State Department's latest findings, issued in June.
Those countries can be denied some types of U.S. funds for military assistance unless the White House grants a waiver. The 2008 law also allows U.S. officials to block licenses needed for those nations to buy military equipment.
It was not immediately clear how much U.S. funding would be blocked because of Thursday's action.
Rwanda was not granted a waiver because of its role backing the M23 rebels in nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, Thomas-Greenfield, the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, said in an online forum with reporters broadcast on the State Department website.
U.N. investigators and the Congolese government have accused Rwanda of sponsoring the rebellion, a charge Rwanda denies.
"Any support of those rebel groups is seen as contributing to conflict in the region," Thomas-Greenfield told reporters, adding that U.S. officials will continue to discuss the issue with the Rwandan government.
The United States will still support peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda, the other official added.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed, additional reporting by Jenny Clover in Kigali and James Chege in Nairobi; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Stacey Joyce)