JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The presidents of Congo and Rwanda on Thursday called for peace talks to quickly resume between the Congolese government and a rebel movement that is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda.
The summit organized in Uganda's capital marked a rare opportunity for Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to hold face-to-face meetings at a time when their countries are on edge over Rwanda's alleged military involvement in eastern Congo.
The negotiations between the Congolese government and the M23 rebels have repeatedly stalled since late last year.
In a statement issued late Thursday, the presidents and other regional leaders called for peace talks to resume within three days' time "and conclude within a maximum period of 14 days during which maximum restraint must be exercised on the ground to allow for talks to conclude."
In August, Congolese troops backed by U.N. forces battled M23 rebels near the eastern city of Goma, home to nearly 1 million people along the Rwandan border. Rwanda accused the Congolese military of firing missiles across the border and warned that "this provocation can no longer be tolerated."
Then the M23 rebels last week declared a unilateral cease-fire following a week of heavy fighting with the Congolese troops, saying they wanted to "give peace a chance," although Congo's government said it wants M23 disbanded.
Congo's government now will be less keen on the talks as its army and a newly strengthened U.N. intervention force appear to have the upper hand in the most recent clashes with the rebels, according to Jason Stearns, a Congo expert who runs the Usalama Project, a think tank that researches Congo's armed groups.
"The primary drive to get back to the negotiating table is coming from Uganda and Rwanda," he said. "They (Congo's government) feel that they are in a position of strength."
Congo's government would be interested in talks that can lead to "the decapitation of M23," he added.
Thursday's meeting in the Ugandan capital of Kampala was called by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni "to stop the fighting and get back on the negotiating table," according to James Mugume, the permanent secretary at Uganda's Foreign Ministry.
The summit in Kampala was organized under the banner of a regional bloc called the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. It also was attended by United Nations special envoy Mary Robinson, who has urged a political solution to a crisis that recently threatened to spill over Congo's borders.
In their statement Thursday, the presidents said they "strongly condemn" the deaths of civilians on both sides of the border and also urged M23 to stop its threats.
"M23 should put an end to all military activities, and stop war and threats of overthrowing the lawful government of (Congo)," said the statement signed by the presidents including Rwanda's Kagame.
Rwanda denies backing the rebels despite multiple U.N. reports citing evidence to the contrary. One U.N. report said Rwandans join M23 in small groups, hiking across footpaths into Congo. Rwanda also has supplied the rebels with arms and sophisticated equipment, including night vision goggles, the report said.
In the latest fighting, however, Congolese troops were boosted by a special intervention brigade of U.N. troops who, unlike the other 17,000 peacekeepers stationed in the vast nation, have a mandate to attack the rebels. The U.N. brigade shelled rebel positions with artillery as Congolese troops engaged the rebels in hand-to-hand combat, support that may have pushed the rebels to retreat and declare the cease-fire.
It stood in stark contrast to last November, when the U.N. troops were unable to stop the M23 rebels from briefly overtaking Goma before withdrawing under international pressure.
M23 is made up of hundreds of Congolese soldiers mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted the national army last year after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a deal signed in March 2009. Even before the creation of the M23 in 2012, eastern Congo's forest-covered hills were crawling with other rebel groups, ethnic militias and renegade units of the regular army.
Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.