West presses DRC, Rwanda to avert tragedy

Thousands of civilians displaced by conflict languished on the roads of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Sunday as Western powers pressured Congolese and Rwandan leaders to prevent “another Rwanda” tragedy.

In their new strongholds, victorious rebels tried to reassure tens of thousands of civilians thrown on the roads by the latest week of fighting, but touring diplomats and aid groups said a catastrophe was looming.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking during a trip to the Gulf, told reporters the international community must “not allow [DRC] to become another Rwanda”, where 800 000 people died in the 1994 genocide.

Earlier on Saturday, on a joint European Union mission to defuse the crisis, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British counterpart David Miliband pressed Congolese and Rwandan leaders to support a four-day-old ceasefire.

“The humanitarian need is absolutely pressing,” said Miliband, who toured the area of Goma, capital of Nord-Kivu province.

“Humanitarian aid needs security and that is the absolute priority for these people [aid workers], who need safe and secure routes for the humanitarian aid that has been promised.”

The idea of sending a European Union force to DRC was floated this week but the pair of envoys played down such a move and called for the 850 peacekeepers in Goma to be reinforced by soldiers of the 17 000-strong existing UN force (Monuc) from elsewhere in the country.

On the main road out of Goma, thousands of civilians, many starving and without humanitarian aid, seized on the lull in fighting to try to regain a refugee camp further north.

“I sleep on the roadside. I don’t have blankets, no sheeting. We have to ask the local population for food but it’s not enough for all of us,” said Simon Tuzere, a 50-year-old farmer.

The latest crisis was spurred when forces led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda pushed towards Goma while government forces retreated and deserted en masse, unravelling months-old agreements to restore peace in the region.

Even as it looked poised to descend on Goma, Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) on Wednesday announced a unilateral ceasefire, which has so far held.

Before touring the affected areas to assess the damage, Kouchner and Miliband held talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa and called for existing agreements to be implemented.

The Brussels-based think-tank, International Crisis Group, suggested that the UN appoint a special envoy to monitor their implementation and ensure that past diplomatic efforts were not in vain.

Kouchner and Miliband later travelled to Kigali to seek support from Rwandan President Paul Kagame for the ceasefire.

An official at the presidency said the three officials had also discussed a meeting between Kabila and Kagame, which could take place in Nairobi.

The pair of EU envoys continued their lightning tour of the region in Tanzania for talks with President Jakaya Kikwete, who holds the rotating chair of the African Union.

The US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, also met Kagame and raised the issue of Kigali’s relations with Nkunda.

While Kigali’s Tutsi-dominated regime has repeatedly denied actively supporting Nkunda, also a Tutsi, the weekend’s diplomatic shuttling is a measure of Rwanda’s influence on the conflict in Western eyes.

Analysts say there is no doubt that Kigali, frustrated by Kinshasa’s failure to disarm a Rwandan Hutu rebel group harbouring key perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, assists Nkunda.

Uruguayan military commander Jorge Rosales, who is overseeing the peacekeeping troops in Congo, pointed out Friday that rebel “troops are backed by tanks, something that general Nkunda had not had until now”.

Nkunda’s forces on Saturday held a parade in the town of Rutshuru, which they seized earlier this week, and promised civilians they would improve their living conditions and guarantee their safety.—Sapa-AFP

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