(Reuters) – Congo has rejected calls for an exclusively African regional force to tackle a raging insurgency in the country’s east, accusing neighboring states of involvement, and ruled out any negotiations with the rebels behind the crisis.
Fighting between M23 rebels and Democratic Republic of Congo government forces has displaced nearly half a million people since April and damaged relations between neighboring countries in the Great Lakes region that have a history of conflict.
Regional African leaders agreed last month on the idea of a “neutral force” to take on Congo-based rebel groups.
But when heads of state of east and central African nations met this week in Kampala to discuss the eastern Congo crisis, they failed to agree on whether such a force would be drawn from their own countries or have a broader U.N. make-up.
Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda said Kinshasa would accept soldiers from certain central and east African states as part of an international mission, but not from Rwanda and neighboring states that he did not specify.
The U.N. Security Council last week demanded an end to foreign support for the Tutsi-led M23 rebels, a rebuke diplomats said was aimed at Rwanda and Uganda.
Rwanda has denied accusations by U.N. officials that its military has provided equipment and recruits for the M23 rebellion. Uganda has rejected similar accusations.
Congo favors an expanded role for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo while Rwanda and Uganda, under pressure from the West to cut all links to the M23 insurgency, want a regional force to tackle the rebels.
STICK WITH UN FORCE, CONGO SAYS
“To us, the quickest and easiest way, is to use the mechanism that’s already in the DRC,” Tshibanda told reporters late on Wednesday in Kampala.
“(The neutral force) cannot involve Rwandan troops because Rwanda is part of the problem. These negative forces operate on Congolese soil but they come from neighboring countries. So I think these … countries logically shouldn’t be part of this force.”
The regional heads of state said they would decide the composition of the force at a later meeting.
The United Nations has more than 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo but they have often struggled to halt fighting and protect civilians in the vast, unruly central African state, which produces gold, copper, tin, diamonds and other minerals.
Tshibanda said the Congo government was unwilling to negotiate with rebels who have seen their ranks swelled by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army.
“We don’t want them to survive as a movement, as an ideology, we don’t want to see their actions continue… there is no question about it, and there is nothing to discuss, to negotiate,” he said.
The M23 name comes from a 2009 peace accord the rebels say was violated by Kinshasa, an assertion denied by the government.
Benjamin Mbonimpa of M23’s political wing said it was ready for dialogue and that the Kampala meeting had failed.
“Whilst they were in Kampala (the army) has been reinforcing its positions… We’ve always said we’re open to dialogue but if they attack us we’ll defend ourselves,” he said on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg; Writing by James Macharia)