KINSHASA, Congo — The leaders of Congo and Rwanda have agreed in principle to back a neutral international armed force to combat Congo's newest rebellion and other fighters terrorizing civilians in the country's mineral-rich east, and the African Union said it could help by sending soldiers.
Congo state television said leaders of the two countries met Sunday in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – their first meeting since accusations backed by a U.N. report charge Rwanda helped create and arm the new M23 rebels. Rwanda denies the allegations.
Joseph Kabila of Congo and Paul Kagame of Rwanda had met for 1 1/2 hours and then endorsed an agreement hammered out at a meeting Thursday of foreign ministers of the 11-nation International Conference of the Great Lakes Region attended also by the defense ministers of Congo and Rwanda.
Among several clauses the agreement calls for a regional body, the Great Lakes conference, to work with the African Union and the United Nations "for an immediate establishment of a neutral international force to eradicate M23, FDLR and all other negative forces in eastern DRC (Congo), and patrol and secure the border zones."
The FDLR or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda is led by Hutus who helped perpetrate Rwanda's 1994 genocide and escaped to Congo. Some 800,000 Tutsi people and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in Rwanda. Two years later, a Rwandan-backed rebellion erupted in eastern Congo. Back-to-back civil wars drew in the armies of a half dozen nations in what degenerated into a scramble for Congo's rich mineral resources.
Peace was eventually negotiated in 2002, but a low-level conflict simmers unabated in eastern Congo. The Rwandan genocide perpetrators regrouped to attack Congolese Tutsis and allied tribes. The Congolese formed militias to defend themselves against the invaders. Today, eastern Congo is a battleground for numerous groups including rebels from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi and more than a dozen homegrown militias vying for power and control of the mineral resources.
Jean Ping, the African Union's outgoing chief bureaucrat, said Sunday that the pan-African organization would be willing to send troops for such an international army fighting in eastern Congo.
Congo already has the world's largest peacekeeping force of nearly 20,000 U.N. soldiers and police. Their primary mandate is to protect civilians, but they also have orders to support Congo's army in its fight against rebels and militias. In that support role, the U.N. troops often have retreated when Congolese soldiers flee.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said the world body was still looking into the details agreed upon at the AU summit and the Great Lakes region meeting, adding that Congo's peacekeeping mission "stands ready to support regional efforts to resolve the crisis in eastern DRC within its mandate and capabilities."
The U.N. Security Council late Monday welcomed the Kagame-Kabila discussions to resolve the crisis and encouraged "continued high-level dialogue at the bilateral and regional level." It urged the governments of Congo and Rwanda to fully implement bilateral and regional "mechanisms" to address insecurity in the east.
The council strongly condemned the M23 attacks, demanded an immediate halt to all violence in eastern Congo and urged that the commanders of M23 including Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for alleged war crimes by the International Criminal Court, be apprehended and brought to justice.
The council reiterated its condemnation of all outside support to armed groups in Congo and demanded that such backing "cease immediately." It also called on all countries in the region "to cooperate actively with the Congolese authorities in demobilizing the M23."
Kabila's army – ill-equipped, ill-paid and demoralized – is accused of pillaging and rape of civilians as often as are the rebels and militias, putting U.N. peacekeepers in an invidious position. Congo's soldiers have proved no match for the rebels, who are said to number in the hundreds compared to the army's 150,000.
Ongoing fighting has forced more than 200,000 civilians from their homes, including more than 20,000 across borders into Rwanda and Uganda.
U.N. peacekeepers have deployed helicopter gunships to bombard rebel positions in the past week. The rebels allege that civilians were killed in the air raids, but provided no death toll.
In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, the rebels then threatened to view the peacekeepers as partisan, hostile forces unless the U.N. explains their "real mandate."
Three years ago, Kabila had called for the withdrawal of the U.N. mission, accusing it of failing to protect civilians and to help bring peace to eastern Congo. A few hundred U.N. troops were sent home, Kabila stopped his criticism, and neither side has said anything about a withdrawal recently.
___Edith Lederer in New York contributed to this report.