African nations give rebels in Congo six months to disarm
LUANDA/KINSHASA (Reuters) - African nations have agreed to suspend military operations for six months against Rwandan rebels in Congo to give them more time to lay down their arms, regional government officials said.
The Rwandan FDLR rebels, who seek to overthrow the Rwandan government and who include former soldiers and Hutu militia held responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, announced in April they would disarm. Some began doing so in May.
Disarmament would improve the prospects of stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where millions have been killed in nearly two decades of conflict that has sucked in an array of armed factions and national armies. Congo is a major producer of diamonds and metals, including copper and gold.
The suspension was announced after a meeting in Angola on Wednesday of foreign ministers from a regional bloc including states in central and eastern Africa.
"The results of this surrender (of FDLR arms) are not sufficient ... but still the member states deemed that as acceptable," Angola's Foreign Minister Georges Chikoti told national news agency Angop. He said the FDLR's progress towards disarming would be reviewed after three months.
The FDLR and previous incarnations of the group, whose full name is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, have operated in Congo's eastern borderlands since they fled Rwanda following the genocide. They are regularly accused of human rights abuses, including massacres of civilians.
The rebels offered to disarm and take up political dialogue on May 30 but so far only around 200 fighters have surrendered out of an estimated 1,500.
The FDLR continues to prepare militarily despite claiming readiness to lay down its arms, U.N. experts said in an interim report on Thursday.
"In contrast to claims that it is ready to disarm, FDLR continues to recruit and train combatants, including children," the report said.
An FDLR delegation went to Rome on June 26 for talks with U.N. officials and diplomats hosted by the Christian community group Sant'Egidio, a move which infuriated Rwandan officials.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame said he was angered by an unsuccessful U.N. attempt to lift a travel ban on FDLR interim president Victor Byiringiro so he could attend the Rome talks.
"I am completely bored and disgusted by this (rebel) problem," he told a news conference on Tuesday. "Over the last 20 years these genocidal forces ... have been roaming around the region and in foreign capitals in Europe and America."
Their presence along the border has also served as a pretext for Rwandan military interventions in Congo, which have themselves helped fuel conflict there since the mid-1990s.
Last year, bolstered by a special brigade with a robust mandate to carry out offensive operations, Congo's U.N. mission, MONUSCO, launched a military campaign against the remaining armed groups operating in the mineral-rich east.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the army would honor the suspension of operations but would be ready to act if the FDLR did not live up to its pledges.
MONUSCO could not confirm its policy on military strikes following the imposition of the six-month deadline, according to a military spokesman contacted by Reuters on Thursday.
Over 25,000 FDLR fighters have demobilized since 2002, but those numbers have slowed to a trickle in recent years. The remaining rebels live with communities in Congo's forests.
By By Shrikesh Laxmidas and Peter Jones