Leaders called for a cease-fire to take effect later this week in eastern Congo following a summit in Angola on Wednesday that included Congo’s president and Rwanda’s foreign minister but not the M23 rebels whose rapid advance has sharply escalated tensions between the two countries.
In a statement, participants said the Friday evening cease-fire would be followed by a rebel withdrawal from the major towns that are currently under M23 control — Bunagana, Rutshuru, and Kiwanja.
“If M23 refuses to disengage and liberate all the territory they currently hold, the (East African Community bloc) heads of state will instruct the regional forces to pressure them into submission,” said the statement released following the summit in Angola.
A contingent of Kenyan troops already has deployed to eastern Congo as part of the regional force agreed to back in June. It also will eventually include two battalions from Uganda, two from Burundi, and one from South Sudan.
However, the M23 rebel group showed no sign of backing down, instead issuing a statement earlier Wednesday accusing the Congolese military of rounding up citizens of Tutsi descent in preparation for an “imminent genocide.”
Spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka claimed Congolese citizens of Tutsi origin were being asked to gather in certain places or risk being treated as rebels. Kanyuka offered no evidence to back up his claim.
“The M23 reiterates its undertaken commitment to a direct dialogue with the DRC Government in order to peacefully resolve the ongoing conflict,” he said. “However, it shall not stand by and witness the slaughtering of a group of Congolese citizens.”
There was no immediate comment from the Congolese military on the M23 allegations but a Congolese government spokesman again voiced opposition to the rebels joining peace talks. “Rwanda is the spokesperson for the M23,” Patrick Muyaya said, a claim Rwanda denies.
Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi also has met recently with representatives of the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups, where he condemned xenophobia and reassured them of his commitment to condemning ethnic discrimination.
The M23 rose to prominence a decade ago when its fighters seized Goma, the largest city in Congo’s east, which sits along the border with Rwanda. After a peace deal, many of the M23′s fighters were integrated into the national military.
Then the group re-emerged last November, saying the government had failed to live up to its decade-long promises. By June, M23 had seized the strategic town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda.
M23 has been a sticking point in deteriorating relations between Congo and Rwanda. Many of the rebel fighters are Congolese ethnic Tutsis and Rwanda’s president is of Rwandan Tutsi descent.
In August, a report by U.N. experts said they had “solid evidence” that members of Rwanda’s armed forces were conducting operations in eastern Congo in support of the M23 rebel group.
Rwanda, though, has repeatedly denied the allegations and has accused Congolese forces of carrying out cross-border shelling.
The summit Wednesday also included the presidents of Angola and Burundi, and former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has been mediating peace efforts in eastern Congo in recent weeks.