GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo were preparing for peace talks with Kinshasa’s government, officials said Wednesday, as the pope urged the warring sides to reconcile.
Rebel group M23's political leader Jean-Marie Runiga said his guerrillas were "ready" for talks, which are expected to include a raft of potential demands, including major political reform for the war-weary region.
The rebels' lightning capture of the mining hub of Goma on November 20, eight months after the army mutineers launched an uprising against the government, had sparked fears of a wider war and a major humanitarian crisis.
The rebels, largely from the ethnic Tutsi community, pulled out of Goma last weekend.
Uganda, despite being accused by U.N. experts of having provided logistical support to the M23, claims it strongly denies, will host and mediate the negotiations.
"We are hoping they will begin in the next few days,” said James Mugume, a senior official in the Ugandan foreign ministry, adding no date had been set for them to begin.
Before those talks however, regional southern African leaders and officials will hold a summit Friday in the Tanzanian city Dar es Salaam on the crisis in the Congo.
South African President Jacob Zuma will attend alongside representatives from the 15-nation member Southern African Development Community (SADC), a bloc that includes the Congo, diplomats said.
The bloc — which also includes countries such as Angola and Zimbabwe, countries previously involved in the 1996-2003 Congolese civil wars — does not include either Rwanda or Uganda, nations accused of backing the M23 rebels.
It was not clear if representatives from Kinshasa or the M23 will attend.
Pope Benedict XVI called on the warring sides to reconcile, speaking of the plight of thousands of people in the mineral-rich province of North Kivu where thousands have fled their homes.
"I renew my appeal for dialogue and reconciliation," the pontiff said in his weekly general audience.
Tensions remain high in the war-blighted region, and both government soldiers and rebels have been accused of civilian killings, rape and looting during the latest unrest.
Eastern Congo, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, was the cradle of back-to-back wars that drew in much of the region from 1996 to 2003 and were fought largely over its vast wealth of copper, diamonds, gold, and coltan, a key mobile phone component.
The instability there has been exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power.
The M23 was founded by former fighters in a Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal that they claim was never fully implemented. Several of its leaders have been hit by UN sanctions over alleged atrocities.
Both Rwanda and Uganda are accused of backing the fighters, with a UN report quoting sources that over 1,000 Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebels, while Kampala provided logistical support.
Kigali and Kampala have strongly denied involvement in the conflict.
Runiga, speaking from rebel-held territory in Bunagana on the DR Congo border with Uganda, said M23 was "putting together the negotiating team" with the first delegates to leave Thursday, although were waiting for news of an airplane to take them.
Runiga said he hoped that President Joseph Kabila would take part in the talks, as the "best thing is that he is there and is committed.”
However Kabila, his credibility already battered by the fall of Goma, is believed to be unlikely to join talks with rebels, that some might see as further loss of face for the leader.
Instead, Kinshasa is expected to send a delegation including members of the national assembly and senate, likely headed by Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda.
The role of Rwanda and Uganda in brokering any deal will also be key, but finding a lasting solution to one the continent's most intractable conflicts will be no simple task.
"What is not clear is the agenda of the negotiations, because the M23's agenda seems to be very stretchy," said Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Jason Stearns, writing in a recent report on armed groups in the Kivu regions of eastern Congo for the Rift Valley Institute, noted that the M23 was only one of multiple militia forces there.
"Conflict has been recurring in the eastern Congo for the past 20 years . . . without a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of conflict, further violence will be inevitable," he wrote.
Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the region's newly displaced, with some 285,000 people having fled their homes since the rebels began their uprising in April.
Goma's airport reopened Wednesday, which will allow much needed aid to be flown in.
© AFP 2013