East African leaders agreed Monday to send in a regional force to try to end fighting in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and called for an immediate ceasefire.
The move was announced by the Kenyan presidency after the seven-member East African Community held talks in Nairobi on an upsurge of violence in the volatile region that has ensnared neighbouring countries.
“The heads of state instructed that the regional force should, in cooperation with the military and administrative forces of the DRC, seek to stabilise and secure the peace in the DRC,” President Uhuru Kenyatta’s office said in a statement.
“The heads of state directed that an immediate ceasefire should be enforced and cessation of hostilities should commence immediately.”
The vast mineral-rich DRC is struggling to contain dozens of armed groups in the east, many of which are a legacy of two regional wars a quarter of a century ago.
A recent flare-up of heavy fighting in the east has revived decades-old animosities between Kinshasa and Kigali, with the DRC blaming neighbouring Rwanda for a resurgence of the M23 militia.
Rwanda has repeatedly denied backing the rebels, while both countries have accused each other of carrying out cross-border shelling.
The Kenyan statement did not say whether Rwandan troops would be involved in the regional force — but the government in Kinshasa insisted it would not accept their presence.
“Placed under the military command of Kenya, this force should be operational in the coming weeks and should not include within it elements of the Rwandan army,” the DRC presidency said on Twitter.
‘Collective approach’ needed
Both DRC President Felix Tshisekedi and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame were at the meeting hosted by Kenyatta, along with the leaders of Burundi, South Sudan and Uganda, and Tanzania’s ambassador to Nairobi.
Kagame was in attendance even though Rwanda is hosting dozens of leaders from across the globe at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this week.
African Union Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat welcomed the outcome of the talks in a statement posted on Twitter.
“I urge the immediate implementation of their decisions in order to restore peace in Eastern DRC,” he added.
A primarily Congolese Tutsi militia, the M23 leapt to global prominence in 2012 when it captured the main eastern DRC city of Goma.
It was forced out shortly afterwards in a joint offensive by UN troops and the Congolese army.
But the militia has recently made a comeback, clashing with Congolese troops in violence that has inflamed tensions in central Africa and forced thousands of people to flee to neighbouring Uganda.
“The problems affecting the region like the crisis in Congo need a collective approach from all regional members of the East African Community,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said on Twitter as the meeting got under way.
“We must insist on working together because these people have suffered a lot.”
Call for pressure on Rwanda
Museveni’s government has sent in troops to help Congolese forces fight the Allied Democratic Forces, a militia group blamed for thousands of deaths in eastern Congo and a string of bombings in the Ugandan capital Kampala.
After M23 rebels captured the border town of Bunagana a week ago, Kenyatta called for the deployment of an EAC force to restore peace, and military chiefs from the bloc’s seven member states met on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the M23 said it was reopening the Bunagana border post, a busy trading and transit centre for goods that lies not far from the front line.
Tshisekedi has accused Rwanda of seeking to “occupy our land,” which is rich in minerals such as gold, coltan and cobalt “for their own exploitation and profit”.
He has called on the international community, and Britain in particular, to “pressure Rwanda to withdraw its troops”, noting London’s controversial agreement to send asylum seekers to Kigali.
“Given the UK’s recent $150 million immigration deal struck with Rwanda, we hope that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to leverage his influence,” Tshisekedi said.
Relations between Kinshasa and Kigali have been strained since the mass arrival in the DRC of Rwandan Hutus accused of slaughtering Tutsis during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.