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POLITICS-DR CONGO: Regional Leaders Urge Effective Ceasefire

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Nov 8 2008 (IPS) - African leaders meeting in Nairobi have called for an end to the renewed fighting in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which has displaced 253,000 people since August, according to the United Nations.

In a communiqué released at the end of an extraordinary summit on the DRC crisis on Nov. 7, heads of state of the Great Lakes region (GLR) said: "The Great Lakes Region will not stand by to witness incessant and destructive acts of violence by any armed group against innocent people of DRC; if and when necessary, the GLR will send peace-making forces into the Kivu province of DRC."

The GLR includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan and the DRC; the Nairobi meeting was also attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Its leaders have called for an immediate ceasefire and the establishment of a humanitarian corridor in North Kivu, where clashes have broken out between DRC troops and rebels, hampering humanitarian activities.

Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania's president and chairman of the African Union, noted: "As we speak here today, guns are raging in the hills, valleys, and fields of North Kivu. Lives are being lost and innocent civilians are being forced to flee their homes…"

At least 20 people were killed in Kiwanja, a neighbouring town to Rushuru, near the Uganda border on Nov. 4, according to Human Rights Watch, the international human rights watchdog. In total, 100 civilians have died and over 200 have been injured since combat resumed in August between the Congolese army and forces of rebel general Laurent Nkunda and their allied militia.

The United Nations says that a quarter million people uprooted from their homes since August are dispersed over a vast, inhospitable area, lacking access to shelter, water, food and medicines. With renewed fighting this week, many more have been forced to run away in search of safety.

"The humanitarian need is very high, and people are continuing to flee because there is exchange of gunfire in Kivumba in Goma [the regional capital]. On Wednesday there was a shoot-out in Goma and people fled to Kigali (Rwanda's capital). I saw tens of thousands of people, old and young, women with children on their backs walking in search of safety," Michael Arunga, Emergency Communications Advisor for World Vision Africa told IPS.

Arunga, who left Goma on Nov. 5, said incidents of rape had been reported in Shasha, some 38 kilometres southwest of Goma, where unidentified armed men had assaulted women searching for firewood.

"The situation is heart-rending. People need peace. I spoke to them and they are crying out for peace. Security must prevail even for us – humanitarian agencies to do our work," he stated.

Apart from the targeting of civilians, there have been attacks on humanitarian workers, making it difficult for them to respond to the urgent humanitarian crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, about 35 aid workers have reportedly suffered attacks since end of August, including car-jacking, armed robberies and physical assaults. A large number of these attacks, HRW says, were carried out by Congolese army soldiers.

A general feeling is that a lasting solution for the country must involve Laurent Nkunda, head of the Congres National Pour la Defense du Peuple (CNDP) whose forces have seized key towns in the eastern DRC. His absence at the Nairobi meeting cast doubts over the success of the summit.

Agence France Presse reported that a spokesperson for the CNDP, Bertrand Bisimwa, said, "This summit is late in taking steps. We decreed a ceasefire (unilaterally on October 29) and we have already decided on the creation of humanitarian corridors (October 30)."

Another key objective of the meeting was to open dialogue between DRC president Joseph Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame, whose administration has been accused of aiding Nkunda’s rebel forces, something it has vehemently denied.

The meeting called on the two leaders to implement a November 2007 accord signed in Nairobi compelling the Congolese army to disarm Rwandan Hutu rebels who participated in the 1994 genocide and now operating in eastern Congo. On its part, Rwanda was to seal its borders to prevent the entry or exit of any armed groups, including Nkunda's forces.

With peace still distant despite signing several accords, the appointment of Olusegun Obasanjo and Benjamin Mkapa as mediators in the Congo crisis signaled the continent's desire for sustainable peace in the mineral-rich country. The two are former presidents of Nigeria and Tanzania respectively, and will report to the AU and the U.N. Security Council.

A ceasefire signed between Nkunda's forces and the Congolese army in January 2008 collapsed in August, since which time the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) – the world's largest – has been unable to contain the rebels' advances and protect civilians.

There are now intensified calls for a strengthened UN peacekeeping force to cope with DRC's vast area and the dynamics of the violence. Currently, 17,000 troops are deployed in the country.

"The force is stretched beyond its capacity and there is need to increase the number of troops and resources," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said.

The Security Council is yet to be consulted about additional troops to bring calm to a country that has continued to see violence despite the end of a protracted war from 1998 to 2003.

Moon warned that failure to address the Congo crisis comprehensively could result in conflict in the entire Great Lakes Region.

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