Conflict in Congo defies fast solution

Refugees have flooded a refugee camp in Kibati just north of Goma in eastern Congo. About 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since fighting erupted in August.

Associated Press

Refugees have flooded a refugee camp in Kibati just north of Goma in eastern Congo. About 250,000 people have been forced from their homes since fighting erupted in August.

The international community is scrambling to organize a summit to prevent a resumption of the fighting in Congo that has displaced a quarter-million people in recent weeks. But the conflict will be tough to end without resolving an issue at its heart — the presence of Hutu militias who participated in Rwanda's genocide.

The Hutu fighters fled to Congo in 1994 after helping massacre more than a half-million Tutsis. They remain there untouched, heavily armed, and in control of lucrative mines in remote hills and forests.

Congo's ethnic Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, has used the threat they pose to justify carving out his own fiefdom in the mineral-rich east.

That fiefdom grew dramatically in recent days as his fighters advanced dozens of miles south to the gates of the provincial capital, Goma, forcing a beleaguered army and humiliated U.N. peacekeepers to retreat.

Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire and suddenly halted his advance. It's unclear why, but there was certainly intense diplomatic pressure to do so. And seizing a city that is home to hundreds of thousands of people and serves as the regional headquarters of the United Nations and aid groups would have been difficult.

Either way, an immediate resumption of fighting is unlikely. Congo's notoriously undisciplined army easily crumbled against Nkunda's advance, showing it will not stand and fight. European officials have played down the possibility of sending another foreign force. The 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo is already the largest in the world.

The new status quo will allow Nkunda to profit from any mineral riches and taxes in his freshly seized territories — giving him another bargaining chip at any negotiating table.

The United Nations, the European Union and the African Union are pushing for a summit soon with leaders from Congo and Rwanda. Details are vague and no date has been set.

Past peace talks have yielded agreements, but sparse results.

In a deal late last year meant to help end the fighting, Rwanda and Congo agreed to work together to disarm and repatriate thousands of the Hutu fighters from the so-called Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda. Shortly afterward, Nkunda and Congo's government agreed on a January cease-fire deal.

But Congolese action against the Hutu fighters never materialized, and sporadic fighting involving all sides soon resumed.

Nkunda accuses Congo's army of supplying the Hutu extremists with arms, while Congo accuses Nkunda of getting support from Rwanda's Tutsi-led government.

Nkunda's fighters have gone after the Hutu militias on their own, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to eradicate them: not Rwanda's army when it occupied the east, not U.N. peacekeepers, and certainly not Congo's army.

Whenever the next round of negotiations begins, another peace deal will be on the table. But until the Rwandan Hutu militias are eradicated, Nkunda's rebels will almost certainly not disarm — setting the stage for more conflict.

Without disarmament of the Hutu militias, Congo appears likely to remain where it has been for more than a decade: the epicenter of a humanitarian mess with no clear solution in sight.

Associated Press West Africa bureau chief Todd Pitman has covered Congo and its neighbors for more than a decade.

Conflict in Congo defies fast solution 11/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:43pm]

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