Four Nations Move to End Congo War
By Karl Vick and Charles Trueheart
The tentative accord came at an impromptu meeting called by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Congolese President Laurent Kabila and his ally, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, met for two hours with their antagonists, presidents Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the nations that have been supporting the Congolese army's rebellious factions.
Not present at the meeting in the basement of the Louvre museum were the Congo rebels who want to bring down the Kabila regime, which they accuse of corruption and nepotism.
It was not clear whether the rebels had agreed through intermediaries to the cease-fire, which calls for their allies, Rwanda and Uganda, to withdraw their own forces from Congo.
Museveni said the negotiators agreed in principle to an immediate truce and to sign a cease-fire before the Dec. 17-18 meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, whose president, Blaise Compaore, attended the Paris meeting.
"An accord still needs to be signed, but there was a commitment," Annan said.
French President Jacques Chirac, who is hosting the biennial conference of nearly 50 African leaders where the negotiations took place, also put on a hopeful face, saying "a document exists" outlining the terms of the agreement. He said the parties had reaffirmed to Annan and Compaore their desire to end a war "as absurd as it is painful to the people involved."
"There is no reason to doubt their word," Chirac added.
But Kabila immediately turned coy. "What accord?" he shot back at reporters. "I have not signed any accord."
The Rwandan president was no more encouraging. "I do not think we have made progress," Bizimungu said, but added: "It's better than a breakup."
South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, whose government has repeatedly tried to broker peace in the conflict, said at a news conference, "There is no new initiative that has been taken, no new ideas, no new processes."
Only Museveni, whose incipient reputation for statesmanship has been sullied by the war, put a positive spin on the day. "There are always arguments," he said. "But we ended with a unanimous agreement."
Kabila later said, "We will find a solution. . . . We want peace."
Chirac reported that the leaders of Uganda and Rwanda had agreed to withdraw from Congolese territory in return for unspecified engagements by Kabila "toward democracy and openness." Kabila seized power from president Mobutu Sese Seko 18 months ago, when the country was still known as Zaire, with the help of those very countries.
The subsequent falling-out occurred gradually but steadily. Domestic critics complained that Kabila grew quickly into a corrupt despot who favored members of his own tribe. Rwanda complained that he broke a vow to help annihilate the Hutu extremists who made the mountains of eastern Congo their base after carrying out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which more than 500,000 people were killed.
Chirac described yesterday morning's meetings as "tense but not hostile."
A senior French diplomatic source said it was encouraging that Kabila had agreed to join such a meeting, given his bitter recriminations against the rebels and their foreign backers. On a day dominated by talk of peace, a French official told Agence France-Presse news service, Kabila described Rwandans as "sadists."
The current conflict erupted in early August and at first looked like a rerun of the 1997 rebellion that brought Kabila to power. In both cases, military commanders in Congo's easternmost reaches rose up against a ruler they deemed corrupt. In both cases, their forces swept across the vast rain forest with support from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
But this time the script quickly changed. Angola, a heavily militarized neighbor that had supported the 1997 rebellion, weighed in with the incumbent. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Chad -- and, by some accounts, Sudan -- also entered the fray, all on the side of Kabila.
The rebels, after a string of lightning victories, were beaten back as they tried to march on the capital, Kinshasa, in late August. The war since has seesawed. The rebels lost a key position on Congo's tiny Atlantic coast while retaining control of the central city of Kisangani. As the Paris sessions convened this week, the eastern rebel strongholds faced an offensive led by Zimbabwean warplanes.
If a cease-fire does take effect, the next step would be a formal peace agreement. That is widely considered an even more challenging prospect, given the complexities of a conflict steeped in ethnic conflict, a rush for Congo's vast mineral resources and bitter personal rivalries.
While Zimbabwean businessmen lock up diamond and other mining contracts in the wake of their government's aid to Congo, Rwanda insists it is fighting for its life. In fact, eastern Congo has long been a haven for Hutu extremists who still profess to be committed to killing every Tutsi in Rwanda.
Rwandan officials accuse Kabila of aligning with extremists who, a U.N. report last week confirmed, have been fighting with Kabila's forces in numbers approaching 20,000.
Vick reported from Nairobi and Trueheart from Paris.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company