Congo peace deal expected Monday

Associated Press

ENTEBBE, Uganda (AP) — Congo's government and M23 rebels were expected to sign a peace accord Monday that the United States envoy to the region called a modest but crucial first step toward a sustainable peace in the region.

Leaders of the M23 rebel movement and Congolese government officials were in the Ugandan town of Entebbe on Lake Victoria late Monday to sign a deal, said Ofwono Opondo, a spokesman for Uganda's government. Dignitaries and journalists gathered at the official Entebbe residence of Uganda's president, whose government has been mediating the Congo peace talks since December.

Officials gathered for the ceremony had expected the agreement to be signed around 6 p.m. Ugandan time. But as the early evening hour passed there was no indication when the signing would take place and participants said quietly that the issue of amnesty for the rebel soldiers could hold up the deal.

It appeared Uganda's government was seeking to get compromises from Congo's government on amnesty for rebel commanders who are accused of committing serious abuses in the course of a rebellion that lasted 19 months. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has criticized Congo's government for maintaining what he called a "Eurocentric" foreign policy that he said was indifferent to the interests of regional neighbors such as Rwanda and Uganda, countries accused of supporting the M23 rebels. Both countries, whose militaries in the past have invaded eastern Congo to fight rebel groups operating there, deny the allegations despite evidence given by United Nations experts.

Russ Feingold, the United States envoy to Africa's Great Lakes region, called the pending accord between Congo's government and the M23 movement a "modest" but crucial first step toward solving what he called eastern Congo's "foundational issues." The deal creates "positive momentum" for regional leaders to seek a negotiated end to persistent violence in eastern Congo, said Feingold.

"I consider this to be only a promising first moment," he said.

Feingold said the pending deal between the M23 and Congo's government offered no blanket amnesty for the rebels nor did it contain their automatic reintegration into the Congolese army, the Congolese government position that he said dovetailed with the views of the U.S. government. He said amnesty should be granted on a case-by-case basis.

"We believe the agreement will reflect the desire not to make those mistakes again," he said, talking about a previous agreement in which Congo's government gave blanket amnesty to a rebel group that was M23's precursor.

Hundreds of M23 rebels fled to Uganda after they were defeated by Congolese government troops in recent fighting in eastern Congo. The rebels' top commander, Sultani Makenga, is also in Ugandan custody.

Uganda is holding M23's top commander, Makenga, who last week surrendered to Ugandan border officials amid a heightened offensive by Congolese government troops on rebel positions in eastern Congo. He crossed the border with more than 1,500 of his fighters.

The amnesty issue is believed to have caused the repeated postponement of the signing of the peace agreement, and Ugandan officials haven't said what they will do with Makenga, who is under sanctions by the U.S. and the U.N. for serious crimes including rape and the use of child soldiers in his rebellion.