One clear day in May, a Libyan military transport circled patiently above Uganda's Entebbe airport awaiting permission to land. On board were several dozen lightly armed Libyan soldiers, dispatched as peacekeepers for nearby Congo.
The presidents of Uganda and Congo had signed a peace agreement in Tripoli in April, laying out ways to end Congo's seemingly interminable fighting. But Ugandan officials made no effort to mask their surprise when the Libyan plane showed up--no one had taken a peace agreement in the Congo war seriously before.
After more than a dozen peace summits and at least three announced agreements, each of which supposedly heralded an end to conflict, credibility is in short supply. The latest, and most promising, accord was signed two weeks ago in Lusaka, Zambia, by the six sovereign governments that acknowledge fighting in Congo.
Unfortunately the agreement was not signed by the rebels who started the war. So delegations from all three rebel factions were gathered this week in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, which means "House of Peace." They came without fanfare and met in secret. Three days later, however, the peace accord remained unsigned. And the war rumbled on.
The continued delay has put in still greater jeopardy the fragile--and, some say, manifestly unworkable--peace agreement that two weeks ago won the approval of the six governments involved in the Congo war. It also has added yet another kink to a conflict already marked by almost impenetrable complexity.
The Congolese rebels were meeting in three separate delegations in Dar es Salaam because what began almost a year ago as a unified rebellion against President Laurent Kabila has splintered. The principal issue in the split was whether the war could end through negotiations or only with a military victory over Kabila's government in Kinshasa.
"The deciding factors were fundamentally political," said Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, describing the differences that led to his removal in May as leader of the Congolese Rally for Democracy. "That is, while they think negotiations are just a way of maneuvering, we think negotiations are fundamental to resolving problems. When you think of the military as the only way to resolve problems, then arbitrariness rules all the way across the board."
Many observers calculated that the main rebel group would reconsider its strategy after the countries sponsoring the rebellion--chiefly Rwanda and Uganda--signed the cease-fire accord in Zambia. Both nations, which border Congo to the east, have agreed to pull their troops out of the country, to be replaced by international peacekeepers.
But except for Wamba, who controls a relatively minor force, the rebels have kept fighting even while talking peace.
"Yes, of course, no problem," said Jean-Pierre Bemba, when asked whether the faction he leads, the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, would sign the cease-fire. But he offered the assurances by satellite telephone from Gemena, a northern Congo town his forces captured only days after the accord was signed.
"We're wondering why the hell this thing has not been closed down," a Western diplomat said of the war.
The answer lies in the separate rooms Tanzanian diplomats shuttled between late this week, ferrying assurances and counterproposals among the rebel factions and delegations from Rwanda and Uganda. The hitch may be economic: Each group controls territory rich in gold or diamonds, the sale of which has financed the rebellion and lined many pockets. Personalities also play a role; leaders of the main faction refuse to be in the room with Wamba.
But the longer the accord goes unsigned, the greater the speculation that the rebels' sponsors, particularly Rwanda, are quietly permitting it to fail.
The speculation is grounded in the fact that, while other foreign powers have compelling reasons to pull out of Congo--Angola and Uganda have wars on their own soil--Rwanda long has broadcast its intent to stay as long as necessary. Congo's eastern border has been a staging ground for Hutu extremists who slaughtered more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, a slaughter that lasted for months while the United Nations stood by.
"No one came to the rescue of this nation," said Emmanuel Ndahiro, spokesman for the Tutsi-led Rwandan government that fought its way to power during the genocide. "We did stop the genocide when no one else did. We are still dealing with the after-effects of the genocide."
The U.N. Security Council this week formally urged both Rwanda and Uganda "to make all necessary efforts so that the rebel movements sign this agreement."
U.S. officials have applied steady pressure as well.
"We don't need to hear that from the Americans," said Ndahiro. "It's wrong for anybody to assume that Rwanda is behind this. You should talk about facts, not suspicions. I am telling you that we are not responsible for the fact that the rebels didn't sign."