- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

GABORONE, Botswana (Agence France-Presse) Hope for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo surged here early today as the Kinshasa government and the rebels fighting it committed themselves to the unconditional withdrawal of all foreign armies from the country.
The resolution came at the close of weeklong reconciliation talks at which the warring parties agreed to hold a long-overdue national peace dialogue in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Oct. 15.
Dialogue facilitator Sir Ketumile Masire said that the combatants in the former Zaire's three-year-old war had reached a "political consensus," which bodes well for a final peace agreement in the Ethiopian capital and puts Congo on the road to democracy.
"All warring parties must leave the DRC," he said, adding that rebel groups had not sought any conditions for the retreat of their allies "nor were any given here."
The question of the withdrawal of the rebels' Rwandan and Ugandan allies and troops from Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola backing the government in Kinshasa had dominated the talks, even though it was not part of the agenda.
Mr. Masire, a former Botswana president, said some 70 representatives of the government, the rebels, Rwanda, the unarmed opposition and civil society had gone beyond their brief and had tackled the real obstacles to peace.
"This was meant to be a technical meeting, but it became much more. You introduced some very important aspects. You were instrumental in removing stumbling blocks," he said. "The road to a successful dialogue has now been opened. Your democracy begins here."
The upcoming dialogue is a key feature of the 1999 Lusaka, Zambia, peace protocol, which is widely considered as the only blueprint for peace in Congo, but has yet to be properly implemented.
Dialogue is intended to produce an agreement on free elections and the disarmament of all militia in the Congo and their integration into a national army.
The Rwandan-backed rebels of the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) said the resolution on foreign withdrawal could end the war, which began largely because former President Laurent Kabila's government failed to guarantee the security of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda and eastern Congo.
"For the RCD, a chapter has been closed, and we welcome peace for our families and our children to come," RCD Secretary-General Azarias Ruberwa told reporters.
But Mr. Ruberwa said if the Kinshasa government did not manage to stop ethnic attacks by pro-government militia, the RCD members would be forced to defend themselves.
"Kinshasa has much more of a role in whether the fighting ends. If Kinshasa were to continue to support perpetrators of genocide, we will protect our people. It is our duty."
The leader of the rival Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Front (FLC) rebel groups, Jean-Pierre Bemba, had less to say. "I hope the fighting will end, maybe," he said.
The government and the rebels also committed themselves to ensuring freedom of movement throughout the divided nation and release of political prisoners in the country.
Observers here said these commitments and the decision on the venue and date for the dialogue came easily compared to the hard-won resolution on foreign withdrawal.
The rebels favored South Africa to host the upcoming talks, but bowed to pressure from the government, which sees Pretoria as being too close to Rwanda, that the dialogue take place in Addis Ababa.
"South Africa was the choice of the majority, but we agreed to Addis Ababa because we did not want to block the dialogue," Mr. Ruberwa said.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has been credited with reviving the peace process since taking over as successor to his father, who was assassinated in January, and rebels said he had appeared open to reconciliation when he met with them at the start of talks Monday.


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