Congo, Rwanda leaders meet in Uganda over rebels
The meeting in the Kampala, the capital, was called by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni "to stop the fighting and get back on the negotiating table," according to James Mugume, the permanent secretary at Uganda's Foreign Ministry.
The summit was also attended by United Nations special envoy Mary Robinson, who has urged a political solution to a crisis that recently threatened to spill over Congo's borders. Last month Congolese troops backed by U.N. forces battled M23 rebels near the eastern city of Goma, and Rwanda — accusing the Congolese military of firing missiles across the border —warned that "this provocation can no longer be tolerated."
The M23 rebels last week declared a unilateral cease-fire following a week of heavy fighting with Congolese troops, saying they wanted to "give peace a chance," although Congo's government said it wants M23 disbanded.
The summit in Kampala, organized under the banner of a regional bloc called the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, provided a rare opportunity for Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to hold face-to-face meetings at a time when their countries are on edge over Rwanda's alleged military involvement in eastern Congo.
Rwanda denies backing the rebels despite multiple U.N. reports citing evidence to the contrary. One U.N. report said the Rwandans join M23 in small groups, hiking across footpaths into Congo. Rwanda also has supplied the rebels with arms and sophisticated equipment, including night vision goggles, the report said.
In the latest fighting, however, Congolese troops were boosted by a special intervention brigade of U.N. troops who, unlike the other 17,000 peacekeepers stationed in the vast nation, have a mandate to attack the rebels. The U.N. brigade shelled rebel positions with artillery as Congolese troops engaged the rebels in hand-to-hand combat, support that may have pushed the rebels to retreat and declare a cease-fire. Late last year the rebels briefly overtook Goma before withdrawing under international pressure.
Mugume, the Ugandan diplomat, said regional leaders were working toward a formal ceasefire between Congo's government and M23. The talks in Uganda have repeatedly stalled amid conflicting positions on who was responsible for past atrocities in eastern Congo. Congo's government will now be less keen on the talks after its army, and the U.N. intervention force, appear to have the upper hand in the most recent clashes with the rebels, according to Jason Stearns, a Congo expert who runs the Usalama Project, a think tank that researches Congo's armed groups.
"The primary drive to get back to the negotiating table is coming from Uganda and Rwanda," he said. They (Congo's government) feel that they are in a position of strength." Congo's government would be interested in talks that can lead to "the decapitation of M23," he said.
M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Even before the creation of the M23 in 2012, eastern Congo's forest-covered hills were crawling with other rebel groups, ethnic militias and renegade units of the regular army.
African leaders order restart of DR Congo rebel talks
Congolese troops, backed by a special United Nations force, launched a fresh assault against the M23 movement of army mutineers in the turbulent North Kivu province late last month.
Talks between the M23 and the government broke down in May.
The meeting of the 11-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) -- the seventh such summit held to try to find a lasting solution -- comes amid a recent upsurge in violence.
Conflict in the fertile and valuable mining region has in the past dragged regional powers into the fighting, with both Rwanda and Uganda accused of backing the M23, claims they flatly deny.
Meetings on Thursday before the deal also took place between DR Congo's Kabila and his rival Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame -- who rejects accusations of backing rebel forces in Congo -- Ugandan foreign ministry spokesman Elly Kamahungye told AFP.
Rwanda's Kagame also met separately with Tanzanian leader Jakaya Kikwete, following months of tense relations between their two nations.
The M23 was launched by Tutsi soldiers who mutinied from Congo's army in April 2012 and turned their guns on their former comrades.
Last week the rebels moved back from positions around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, which they seized for 12 days last November before pulling out under international pressure.
Talks between the M23 and Kinshasa began last year but made little headway.
Rebel delegations are already in Kampala, but it was not clear if they also took part in any sideline talks at the summit.