Talks over a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and defeated M23 rebels have failed, in a setback to international efforts to stabilize the African nation’s conflict-prone east.
The peace negotiations failed after Kinshasa demanded changes to the agreement, officials said.
The DR Congo “delegation has aborted the signing of agreement with M23,” Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said on Monday, adding that their meeting in Uganda was adjourned without a new date being scheduled.
The M23 rebels, one of many armed groups operating in the mineral-rich, but impoverished east of the DR Congo, have been routed by the Congolese army, who are backed by the 3,000-strong UN Mission in the DR Congo’s Intervention Brigade.
Seemingly abandoned by their sponsors due to international pressure, the M23 last week said their 18-month insurgency was over.
Despite the failure of the talks, Congolese Minister of Foreign Affairs Raymond Tshibanda said Kinshasa was committed to peace.
“We have been engaged in this process for several months now... We have encountered some difficulties over issues important to us and we think that these difficulties can be removed before finalizing the process,” he said.
The failure to sign a deal will disappoint many, with UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Mary Robinson telling reporters that signing the accord would be “a very important step for peace.”
A joint statement released by Robinson and the UN Secretary-General’s special representative in the DR Congo Martin Kobler voiced regret that the Kampala Dialogue had not been concluded, but added that the parties involved “expressed no differences on substantive points within the draft document.”
The statement, also signed by African Union and EU officials, urged all involved to resolve their differences and “remain committed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.”
The signatories emphasized that any solution must allow the pursuit of war criminals.
Delegations from both Kinshasa and the rebels arrived on Monday evening at Uganda’s State House in Entebbe, where the rebels had been expected to formalize the end of their rebellion in writing.
International observers, including from the UN and African Union, as well as from Belgium, Britain, France and Norway, were also there to witness the deal, Opondo said.
With the Congolese government stalling, it is not immediately certain what will happen next, but Ugandan Minister of Defense and chief mediator Crispus Kiyonga said he remained optimistic.
“We have a problem on our hands in eastern DRC which everybody has agreed needs a political solution ... so, I think, an agreement will be reached,” Kiyonga said.
The M23, a mainly ethnic Tutsi force of mutineers from the Congolese army, have no military leverage left and little room for maneuver.
A key outstanding issue is the fate of about 1,500 M23 fighters who have crossed into Uganda and are languishing in camps along the border. Kampala has refused to hand them over to Kinshasa.
About 100 more injured rebels have crossed into Rwanda.
Kinshasa has said the rebels would be dealt with “case by case.” Many rank-and-file fighters were expected to be given the option to return to the Congolese army.
More complicated is the fate of about 100 M23 commanders. These include M23 leader Sultani Makenga, who is accused of participating in massacres, mutilations, abductions and committing sexual violence.