KAMPALA, Uganda — Peace talks between the Congolese government and rebels believed to be backed by Rwanda have reached a standstill and could fail if regional governments deploy a neutral international force in eastern Congo, a lawyer for the M23 rebel movement said Thursday.
The government and M23 rebels are reviewing the terms of a March 23, 2009 agreement that the rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor. In November the rebels took the eastern city of Goma before withdrawing under international pressure. The rebellion forced thousands of villagers in Congo's North Kivu province to flee their homes.
Jean Baptiste Rudaseswa, the legal adviser for the M23 delegation to the peace talks, said he sees no progress in the negotiations. He said their last meeting was on Jan. 18, and that the M23 representatives now spend more time relaxing at their hotel.
It was not immediately possible to get a comment from Crispus Kiyonga, the Ugandan government minister who is mediating the talks.
M23 representatives and the Congolese government have been meeting in Uganda since Dec. 9 under the banner of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR, a regional bloc of which Congo is a member. A meeting last year of the ICGLR urged the Congolese government to listen to M23's "legitimate grievances." The ICGLR has also proposed the creation of a neutral international force to police eastern Congo, but it remains unclear what its mandate will be or where the troops will come from.
The peace talks started tensely, with both delegations offering accusatory accounts of who is responsible for violence in eastern Congo's North Kivu province.
"We do not see any progress," Rudaseswa said. "We did not come here because we were in a position of weakness...We declared a unilateral ceasefire and we now what we are seeing is a standstill. We are telling the Congolese government that either you talk or you fight. You can't do both at the same time."
The rebels are opposed to the deployment of a neutral international force, proposed by the ICLR, to fight "negative forces" in eastern Congo, Rudaseswa said. He accused the Ugandan mediators of failing to discourage talk of such a force.
In his opening statement Raymond Tshibanda, Congo's foreign minister, said M23 was a criminal organization that must be "eradicated." The talks would only be considered successful if they ended with the disbandment of M23, Tshibanda said in December.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army last April after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army.
A U.N. report published last year accused the Rwandan government of backing the rebels, a charge Rwanda denies. The report also said some Ugandan military officers were helping arm the rebels and that the rebels' political wing operates freely in Kampala. Uganda has said the claims are baseless.