JOHANNESBURG – Regional leaders pressured a Congolese rebel group Saturday to give up its military gains and stop an offensive that could lead to a catastrophic war in eastern Congo.
After an emergency summit in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, the presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania urged the M23 rebels to withdraw. Rebels took Goma, a city of about 1 million people in eastern Congo, on Tuesday. Government forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo did not put up a fight.
There was one big problem with the regional summit on Saturday: the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, whose government was accused in a United Nations report Wednesday of commanding and supporting the M23 rebels, wasn’t there. In a last-minute snub, he sent his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, raising questions about whether regional peace efforts can succeed.
Rwanda denies involvement in eastern Congo but stands to gain from rebel control of the area, which is rich in gold, tin and coltan, an important component in laptops and cellphones. Uganda was also accused in the U.N. report of arming M23.
M23’s seizure of Goma and its threats to take over the entire country have raised fears of a broad, new war in eastern Congo, a region whose wealth in resources has proven a curse to its long-suffering, poorly governed population.
Humanitarian organizations have warned of a mounting disaster with more than half a million people displaced since M23 launched its rebellion.
Eastern Congo has suffered waves of conflict, including mass rapes, recruitment of child soldiers and forced labor for almost two decades, fueled by a toxic mix of corruption, greed and ethnic hatred.
President Joseph Kabila’s capital is in western Congo, on the far end of the enormous country, and he appears far too weak to exert control in the east. His army is chaotic and unreliable.
A joint statement by leaders in Kampala called on M23 to stop fighting, back off from threats to remove Kabila’s elected government, and withdraw at least 12 miles from Goma. But analysts see Rwanda as the key to any peace deal because of its influence over M23.