KINSHASA — The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo said on Monday it hoped to sign a peace deal with eastern rebels on March 15, but a rebel leader said more talks were needed.
The proposed agreement is similar to previous attempts at ending the recurrent conflicts in Congo's mineral-rich east, where local politics, ethnic rivalries and tensions with neighboring Rwanda have simmered for nearly two decades.
A year-long rebellion, known as the M23, briefly seized the town of Goma last year in a major embarrassment to both the government and United Nations peacekeepers supporting it.
According to the draft peace plan, seen by Reuters on Monday, M23 fighters will hand in their weapons ahead of a deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in their territory near Congo's border with Rwanda.
Rebels not facing prosecution will be integrated into the army while Congo's government will, in turn, speed up the return of Congolese ethnic Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, it added.
The deal also offers M23 fighters a limited amnesty.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the draft was a reworking of an agreement signed in 2009 to end a previous rebellion. The M23 rebels say they took up arms last year because of the failure to implement this deal.
"It's a working document ... on March 15 negotiations will be finished in one way or another, with or without a signature," he said, without giving details on what would happen if the rebels did not sign the document.
On-off talks in Uganda to end the M23 rebellion, the latest in a string of Tutsi-led uprisings, had faltered but were revived in recent weeks as rebel infighting appeared to lead to a breakthrough.
Rebels under Sultani Makenga have sidelined those loyal to rival commander Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A high-ranking M23 military source close to Makenga told Reuters the group was prepared to sign. However, the newly appointed head of the group's political wing said he was not aware of any deal.
"We don't know of its existence or content. We're surprised it's circulating in the media," Bertrand Bisimwa said.
"[The government] says it's in a hurry to sign an agreement with us but at the same time they've left the negotiating table... Firstly we need to restart talks," he added.
The draft deal would see M23 officers re-integrated into the army only on a case-by-case basis.
"You won't get back in if you're a criminal," Mende said.
Ntaganda was central to the 2009 deal, which saw him oust then leader Laurent Nkunda, take part in talks and rejoin the army, despite the charges brought against him by the ICC.
Mende refused to discuss specifics but the latest deal would appear to prevent Ntaganda's re-integration this time.
The two factions have clashed in recent weeks and Makenga's camp has pledged to arrest Ntaganda but it is not clear if they can carry out the threat.
Congolese president Joseph Kabila has repeatedly promised to bring stability to eastern Congo, but a string of failed peace agreements have left the region haunted by rebel groups and mired in poverty.
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