- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

JOHANNESBURG Regional diplomats say they fear a return to open combat in Congo, where the increasingly militant government of President Laurent Kabila has formally renounced the country's fragile year-old peace plan.

The diplomatic reversal is prompting talk of economic sanctions among frustrated southern African leaders who brokered the July 1999 peace deal signed in Lusaka, Zambia and raised concerns about a new tide of war refugees from conflict zones in Angola, Burundi and Congo.

It also serves as another setback for the African peacekeeping efforts of President Clinton, who in February made an impassioned appeal for Congress to provide $42 million for a U.N. peacekeeping force for Congo.

Mr. Clinton arrives today in the Tanzanian city of Arusha to witness the signing of yet another questionable African peace deal, this one designed to end seven years of civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi.

The government of Congo, backed by armies from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola, has fought for two years against allied armies from Uganda, Rwanda and three rebel groups hoping to topple Mr. Kabila.

On Wednesday, Congo announced it no longer would abide by the Lusaka deal, which had called for the combatants to disengage, for Mr. Kabila to hold talks with the rebels and other Congo politicians on elections and a new constitution, and for international peacekeepers to supervise the disengagement and withdrawal of foreign troops.

The pact has been stalled for months despite a high-profile effort by the U.N. Security Council to call attention to the issue in January. Mr. Kabila has used the time to rearm and recently began an offensive in northwestern Congo.

African presidents attending a southern African economic summit two weeks ago threw off normal diplomatic niceties and publicly declared Mr. Kabila the sole obstacle to implementing the Lusaka accord.

"If Kabila has renounced the agreement, that is a serious matter and is a declaration of war. It means he is no longer bound by the cease-fire," Amama Mbabazi, Uganda's foreign minister in charge of regional cooperation, said after last week's development.

Dr. Charles Murigande, secretary-general of Rwanda's ruling party, said after conferring with officials in Uganda that Mr. Kabila "will be made to comply. We shall find ways of making him conform with the Lusaka agreement or face the consequences."

Although the rebels are deeply unpopular in Congo and Mr. Kabila likely would win a fair election, he has for months blocked the free movement of U.N. observers and obstructed the work of former Botswana President Ketumile Masire, whom all parties had agreed to as a mediator of constitutional talks.

The rejection of the peace accord came after a heated meeting involving Mr. Kabila, his adversaries and regional heads of state. Despite pressure from both allies and enemies, Mr. Kabila refused to accept the authority of Mr. Masire and insisted contrary to the peace deal he signed that Uganda and Rwanda must withdraw from Congo before any talks continued.

"There is no connection for Kabila between cause and effect," said a senior African diplomat involved in the negotiations with Mr. Kabila. "If we tell him if he walks away from Lusaka he is just postponing the problem, he doesn't see that as the direct result.

"I don't know whether it is a question of lack of capacity or he would just rather die than give up," the diplomat said.

Mr. Kabila muddied the picture on Thursday by pledging for the first time to let U.N. peacekeepers deploy in government areas, raising the prospect that international troops could be deployed in the absence of an effective peace deal. On Friday, Mr. Kabila said vaguely that he had not completely abandoned the peace process.

"It is good news and bad news from [Congo]," said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard. He said the United Nations would await further clarification from a newly appointed envoy, Nigerian Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar, who met Mr. Kabila last week in Kinshasa.

The Clinton administration has not been directly involved in the Lusaka pact, but, at the urging of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Clinton strongly endorsed it at the opening of a five-day National Summit on Africa in February.

"African countries … are not asking us to solve their problems or to deploy our military," Mr. Clinton said at the Washington forum. "All they have asked is that we support their own efforts to build peace and to make it last. We in the United States should be willing to do this."

Hopes that Mr. Clinton and 12 African leaders would witness the signing in Arusha today of a dramatic peace accord for Burundi were rapidly fading, with a cease-fire agreement reportedly out of reach and rebel leaders boycotting the talks.

Mediators working under the supervision of Mr. Mandela worked late into the night seeking to achieve some sort of partial agreement to ease tensions between the majority Hutus and ruling Tutsis before Mr. Clinton's arrival.

On an earlier six-nation tour of Africa in 1998, Mr. Clinton proclaimed an "African Renaissance" marked by a new breed of Western-oriented leaders in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Since then, Uganda has become embroiled in fighting with Rwandan forces in eastern Congo while Ethiopia and Eritrea have engaged in a bloody border war that has been ruinous for both countries.

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