- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

KINSHASA, Congo | Congo’s president said Saturday that troops from former enemies Rwanda and Uganda, who are carrying out joint operations against armed militias in the east, must leave this Central African nation by the end of February.

Ugandan soldiers have been fighting Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in the northeast since December, while Rwandan troops were invited in this month to hunt down Rwandan militias linked to that nation’s 1994 genocide.

President Joseph Kabila made the announcement in the capital, Kinshasa, telling reporters that the foreign armies’ presence “must not last beyond the month of February.”

Ugandan and Rwandan troops invaded in 1998 and seized the eastern half of the country, ostensibly to fight insurgents opposed to their governments. But the two nations became involved in a hunt for mineral riches, turning their guns on each other in three battles in the diamond-rich northern city of Kisangani. Hundreds of civilians were killed.

Uganda and Rwanda withdrew after a 2002 peace deal allowed their rebel proxies to occupy top posts in a Congolese unity government.

Mr. Kabila won elections two years ago and has struggled to end continual violence and extend central government authority in the lawless east of his nation.

Some of the worst violence has hit the northeast, where the United Nations and human rights groups say Ugandan rebels have massacred more than 700 people over the past month in apparent retaliation for a military offensive waged against them since mid-December by soldiers from Congo, Uganda and Sudan.

Farther south, around the provincial capital, Goma, Tutsi rebels led by Laurent Nkunda seized a large territory of hilly pastureland in fighting last fall that forced 250,000 people from their homes.

This month, though, senior commanders and his longtime ally, Rwanda, betrayed Mr. Nkunda, accusing him of being a megalomanic who embezzled from rebel coffers. In a surprise move, Rwanda detained Mr. Nkunda as part of a deal between the two nations that has allowed Rwanda to send thousands of troops across the border into Congo, where they are conducting a joint military offensive aimed at disarming the Rwandan Hutu militias. The offensive was initially supposed to last 10 to 15 days.

As part of the deal, rebels of a splinter faction led by Bosco Ntaganda said they would operate under army command and eventually integrate into army ranks. Rights groups have called for Mr. Ntaganda to be extradited to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, where he is wanted for the forced conscription of child soldiers several years ago.

Analysts speculate Mr. Ntaganda may have brokered a deal to avoid being tried abroad, and Mr. Kabila implied that his government was not going to pursue him. Speaking about Mr. Ntaganda’s fate, Mr. Kabila said his country’s options were “expedited international justice or peace and security for our people in the east.”

“For me, the choice is clear,” Mr. Kabila said. “The choice is stability and security.”

Mr. Kabila also said it was not enough to detain Mr. Nkunda.

“We must completely decapitate the mafia that has installed itself in the east,” he said.

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