DRC: Hopes dashed for a peace deal with M23

An expected peace deal to end the long conflict in eastern DRC has stalled. (AFP)

An expected peace deal to end the long conflict in eastern DRC has stalled. (AFP)

The peace negotiations failed after Kinshasa demanded changes to the agreement, officials said of the latest setback to efforts to stabilise the Democratic Republic of Congo's conflict-prone east.

"The DRC delegation has aborted the signing of agreement with M23," Ugandan government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo said on Monday. The meeting between the two sides in Uganda was adjourned without a new date being scheduled, he added.

The M23 rebels, one of many armed groups operating in the mineral-rich but impoverished east of the DRC, have been routed by the national army, who are backed by a 3 000-strong special UN intervention brigade.

Seemingly abandoned by their sponsors due to international pressure, the M23 announced last week that their 18-month insurgency was over.

Despite the failure of the talks, DRC Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond Tshibanda said the government was committed to peace.

"We have been engaged in this process for several months now ... we have encountered some difficulties over issues important to us, and we think that these difficulties can be removed before finalising the process," he said.

Disappointment
The failure to sign a deal will disappoint many, with the United Nations special envoy to the Great Lakes, Mary Robinson, telling AFP that signing the accord would be a "very important step for peace".

A joint statement released by Robinson and Martin Kobler, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in the DRC, voiced regret that Kampala Dialogue had not been concluded but noted that the parties involved "expressed no differences on substantive points within the draft document".

The statement, also signed by African Union and European Union officials, urged all involved to resolve their differences and "remain committed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict."

The signatories emphasised that any solution must allow the pursuit of war criminals.

Delegations from the government and the rebels arrived Monday evening at Uganda's State House in Entebbe, a town close to Kampala on the shores of Lake Victoria, where the M23 had been expected to formalise the end of their rebellion in writing.

International observers, including from the UN and African Union, as well as from Belgium, Britain, France and Norway, also turned up to witness the deal, Opondo said.

With Kinshasa stalling, it is not immediately certain what will happen next.
But Ugandan Defence Minister and chief mediator Crispus Kiyonga said he remained optimistic.

"We have a problem on our hands in eastern DRC which everybody has agreed needs a political solution ... so, I think, an agreement will be reached," Kiyonga said. "We need time to consult with each party, we can't arbitrarily calculate the time now."

Little room for manoeuvre
The M23, a mainly ethnic Tutsi force of mutineers from the Congolese army, have no military leverage left and little room for manoeuvre.

There was no immediate reaction from the rebels.

A key outstanding issue is the fate of about 1 500 M23 fighters who have crossed into Uganda and are languishing in camps along the border. Uganda has refused to hand them over to the DRC.

Around 100 more injured rebels have crossed to Rwanda.

Kinshasa had said earlier the rebels would be dealt with "case by case". Many rank-and-file fighters were expected to be given the option to return to the Congolese army.

More complicated is the fate of some 100 M23 commanders. These include M23 leader Sultani Makenga, accused of participating in several massacres, mutilations, abductions and carrying out sexual violence, sometimes against children.

Even if a deal is signed, stabilising eastern DRC will not be easy. Previous peace deals for the region have foundered because they were not implemented or did not address underlying problems.

Oxfam on Monday warned the "conflict is far from over", noting over 30 other armed groups operate in the region and civilians risk violence on a daily basis.

Commitment
Robinson said she believed Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who deny backing the M23, were committed to an 11-nation regional peace agreement signed in February.

She said the priority would now shift to defeating the DRC-based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a descendant of Hutu extremist groups that carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Rwanda's minority Tutsi-led government views the FDLR as a major security threat. Dealing with the group is seen as crucial to addressing the neighbouring country's concerns and preventing the emergence of yet another Rwandan-backed proxy. – AFP

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