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Congo militias reach 'historic' peace deal

Congolese militias are to either disband or be incorporated into the national army following a 'historic' ceasefire. From IWPR.

By Charles Ntiryica in Goma and Lisa Clifford in The Hague for IWPR (24/01/08)

After two weeks of negotiations, armed groups in the war-raged eastern Congo have signed a ceasefire in what some have called an historic breakthrough.

More than 1,000 delegates from rebel groups, the government, civil society and the international community gathered earlier this month in the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma to hammer out the deal.

Last minute disagreements delayed the signing for around 24 hours but all sides eventually accepted the deal on 23 January and, at a ceremony attended by President Joseph Kabila, agreed to put down their weapons. They promised to either disband or be incorporated into the national army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A similar previous integration process failed and led to a bloody conflict between rebel general Laurent Nkunda, a Rwandan-trained Tutsi, who successfully battled the Congolese army and other militias.

Under this peace deal, Nkunda and his troops will be given amnesty for acts of war and insurgency, similar to an existing Congo law for crimes committed during the 1998-2003 civil war. But, the soldiers will not get amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

One reason for the delay was a demand from Nkunda's representatives to include war crimes in the amnesty. But Vital Kamerhe, president of Congo's national assembly, refused, saying to do so would encourage impunity.

War crimes are under the jurisdiction of the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC), which already has two Congolese militia leaders in custody. The court is conducting a third investigation in Congo, but has not specified where.

The peace deal could bring some much needed respite to a region ravaged by endless violence in recent years. Since last August, more than 230,000 people have fled their homes, bringing the estimated number of internally displaced to about 800,000. Some suggest the figure may be higher.

This is considered to be the largest internally displaced population since the end of eastern Congo's five-year civil war in 2003.

The peace talks in Goma began after government forces suffered a series of stinging defeats at the hands of Nkunda's fighters. The peace deal was brokered by the US, the UN and the EU.

Kamerhe said, "A deal has been reached and there is no doubt that peace will be recovered soon."

Human rights advocates echoed Kamerhe's optimism and hailed the agreement.

Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch attended the talks in Goma and described the deal as a milestone. "It sets out the principles of ceasefire, the need for return of internally displaced people and refugees, and the issue of amnesty," she said.

Although previous agreements have been short-lived, Van Woudenberg said this one may last because it was backed by the international community which will also help in its implementation.

A UN force will serve as a buffer between the warring parties and a government commission will be named to oversee the ceasefire and the demobilization or integration of armed groups.

"This agreement gives me more confidence than others, but it will absolutely depend on signatories to follow through on what they’ve signed up to," she said.

Nkunda did not attend the peace talks and there has been much speculation about his future, with some saying his exile was possible. Regardless, Nkunda's representatives from his Conseil National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) expressed satisfaction with the agreement.

"We are very happy to see that a lot of things that we have been asking for, for a long time are now being treated [seriously] and were accepted by our partners in the peace conference," said CNDP spokesman Réné Abandi.

"We asked for a reform of the army ... the return of Congolese refugees, the end of impunity and the reform of the justice [system]," said Abandi. "These issues have been talked about and accepted by different commissions of the conference. We are then ready to bring our troops to [integration] centers."

The leader of one local militia group, known collectively as the Mai Mai in the Congo, agreed that the "time had come to build peace" and expressed support for the plan to integrate rebels into the national army. "We are ready to hand back our men, those who wish to continue with army activities," said Félicien Miganda, who heads a group of Congolese Hutus known as Mongol.

The leader of another Mai Mai group also welcomed the peace deal but expressed a note of caution. "We understand that the other armed groups are ready to cease hostilities and join the national army, and we will also do that," he said. "But in case Nkunda's men violate the decision, we will not hesitate to retire into the bush and start fighting."

The mood was generally relaxed throughout the two-week conference which began on 6 January, although organizers stressed that it was perhaps the last chance to end years of chaotic fighting in the eastern Congo.

Alan Doss, the newly-appointed special representative of the UN secretary general, described the meeting as the greatest chance ever seen to bring peace to the Kivus and Congo.

Members of the warring factions were urged to address the reasons behind the conflict. "We invited them to tell everybody why they are fighting," said Congo's Interior Minister Denis Kalume Numbi.

Some said they wanted to protect their families while others said they hoped to bring about political change in Congo.

The leader of Nkunda's CNDP delegation said poor political leadership had created an atmosphere of "hate and exclusion" for Congolese Tutsis. "We decided to take charge of ourselves and protect the population in our areas," Colonel Kasereka Vemba told the conference.

Nkunda has long claimed to be protecting the region's vulnerable Tutsi community from Hutu extremists who fled Rwanda following the 1994 genocide.

Many of the Hutus remained in the Congo and some joined the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose soldiers have battled both Nkunda and the Congolese army. Some of these Hutu fighters were members of the Interahamwe militia that was responsible for the Tutsi genocide.

A representative from the Mai Mai group Patriotes Résistents Congolais (PARECO) accused the CNDP and Nkunda of fighting a proxy war for Rwanda and called for Nkunda's arrest.

"Our brothers Tutsi are betrayers," said Colonel Lafontaine Sirikwayo. "We wonder whether they are Congolese as ourselves or they are foreigners. We are not fighting against our own brothers but against Rwanda's instruments, Rwandan forces. They are looting and raping our sisters, wives and mothers. Some of them must arrested, especially Laurent Nkunda. We ask the international community ... to judge all persons involved in mass killings and crimes."

The leader of a coalition of Mai Mai groups also cited Congolese sovereignty when explaining why he took up arms. "We are fighting the CNDP and FDLR, because both are invading our provinces," said Colonel Didier Vita Mufwatana. "The FDLR troops must return home in Rwanda."

Charles Ntiryica is an IWPR reporter in Goma. Lisa Clifford is an international justice reporter in The Hague.

This article originally appeared in Africa Reports, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).


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