- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

PARIS The news from South Africa this week that Rwanda and Congo have reached a peace agreement aimed at bringing one of Africa's most complex and bloodiest wars to an end has been greeted with renewed hope and some skepticism.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is staking his international credibility on the deal that his vice president, Jacob Zuma, negotiated in Pretoria, South Africa, after five days of talks and months of preparation described by observers as frustrating and painful.

The conflict, which began in 1998, has its roots in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and its aftermath. It has pitted the government in Kinshasa, Congo, supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, against eastern rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

It is ethnic in its roots because Rwanda and Uganda have thrown all their military weight behind ethnic-Tutsi Congolese rebel movements fighting the Hutu fighters driven from Rwanda after the genocide. The Hutu forces are made up of the former Rwandan army and a militia called the Interahamwe, which means "we kill together."

According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the Hutu combatants have been armed and assisted by Congo formally, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, often shortened to DRC and its key ally, Zimbabwe. The Crisis Group estimates the number of Rwandan Hutu fighters in eastern Congo is between 5,000 to 10,000, while other independent sources put the figure as high as 20,000. The Rwandan government says there are 50,000 of them at large in the trackless forests of eastern Congo.

Human-rights groups estimate that up to 2.5 million people have been killed, either as a result of fighting or by disease and malnutrition.

The fighting has also been both motivated and funded by the vast mineral wealth of Congo, a country nearly twice the size of California. Because of this, some African politicians and diplomats say the deal brokered by South Africa brings hope, but they don't know how it can work.

The terms spelled out are simple. Mr. Zuma said Rwanda agreed to withdraw its troops from the DRC, which has promised in turn to flush out the Rwandan Hutu rebels based in eastern Congo.

The South African vice president said Kinshasa's negotiators have agreed to a "rounding up, disarming and dismantling" of the Rwandan Hutus in 90 days, once Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Joseph Kabila of the Congo sign the agreement.

In the past 48 hours, both have pledged through deputies that they would sign it.

"I think this is the beginning of the end of the war in the DRC," said Rwanda's ambassador in South Africa, Joseph Karemera.

But with the South Africans pushing the two presidents to sign on the dotted line, skepticism and signs of mistrust remain.

"It is an important step to resolving the war in the DRC, but everything will depend on the good will and cooperation of Kinshasa," said Rwandan Foreign Minister Andre Bumaya.

"This was the main chapter of the war. If Rwanda leaves the Congo, I do not see any other parties remaining and fighting," said the Congo's ambassador to Pretoria, Bene M'Poko.

But analysts and sources close to Mr. Kagame have warned that they are deeply suspicious of whether the DRC has the will and the ability to round up the Interahamwe rebels, something his more skilled troops have so far failed to do.

"If the Rwandans haven't been able to do it, then who is?" asked Richard Cornwell, an analyst at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. "It seems that the Rwandans have agreed to something, in the event of the occurrence of something which is unlikely to happen."

And since 1998, Rwanda has backed an ethnic-Tutsi group called the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), a rebel movement that has fought the Kinshasa government and now claims to control much of eastern Congo.

The RCD would also have to be persuaded to lay down arms or share power with the Kabila government.

Congo is still considered to be the "Heart of Darkness," as novelist Joseph Conrad called it in the title of a novel precisely a century ago.

A year after independence in 1960 from Belgium, its first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was kidnapped and killed by troops loyal to army chief Joseph Mobutu in what many believe to have been a Cold War struggle of local proxies. After seizing power in 1965, Gen. Mobutu turned the country, which he renamed Zaire, into a base for operations against Soviet-backed neighboring Angola.

After the Cold War, Zaire by then synonymous with corrupt wealth ceased to be of interest to the United States.

When Rwandan troops entered in 1998 to root out the Interahamwe, they gave a boost to anti-Mobutu forces, who quickly captured Kinshasa and installed rebel leader Laurent Kabila. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A rift between Mr. Kabila who was assassinated in January last year and replaced by his son, Joseph and former allies Rwanda and Uganda caused the latest crisis.

Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe took Mr. Kabila's side, turning the country into a vast battleground. Although Namibia has withdrawn, as has Chad, the government today has no control over parts of the country.

And according to humanitarian agencies, as many as 16 million Congolese are now going hungry. More than 2 million have been displaced by fighting, and in some parts of the country, two out of five children die in infancy.

But as the newly created African Union yesterday hailed the peace agreement between Rwanda and its giant neighbor as an "important step" in the search for a durable solution to the conflict, there was no indication when Mr. Kabila and Mr. Kagame would meet and sign it.

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