Kampala: Regional leaders on Saturday called on the DR Congo rebel group M23 to end hostilities and relinquish a key eastern town it seized in an advance that has sparked fears of a wider conflict.
The meeting of heads of state went forward without a key player — Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country the United Nations accuses of backing the rebels — and wrapped up quickly.
In their closing statement, the leaders called on the rebels to “stop all war activities” and “stop talk of overthrowing an elected government”.
In exchange, the Kinshasa government will “listen, evaluate and resolve the legitimate grievances” of the rebels, the statement said, stopping short of committing to the dialogue the rebels have demanded.
Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa, reading a text that differed slightly from the statement handed to the press, said the rebels should withdraw “from current positions to the best ground of tactical importance not less than 20 km (12 miles) north of Goma.”
Such a position would correspond roughly to the positions the M23 held around Kibumba prior to launching their attack on Goma.
The written statement said that pullback should be done “within two days.”
The UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO is supposed to “occupy and provide security in the neutral zone between Goma and the new areas occupied by M23,” it said.
Kutesa told AFP that Tanzania had committed to contributing “at least 200 (soldiers) initially” to be stationed at Goma airport alongside two other companies, one made up of DRC regular troops and the other of M23 rebels.
Asked whether he was satisfied with the summit’s outcome, DR Congo President Joseph Kabila said he would be satisfied “when peace returns”.
Kagame, whose government denies backing the M23, had been expected to attend the meeting but was instead represented by his foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo. No reason was provided.
A Ugandan official had earlier said both Kagame and Kabila would attend, and that without them the summit would be “meaningless”.
The international community has voiced alarm over the lightning advance by the M23 in DR Congo’s mineral-rich but underdeveloped eastern Kivu region, where the insurgents seized Goma and another key town nearby in less than a week.
The advance has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, sparked warnings of a humanitarian disaster, and raised fears that a wider conflict could again erupt in the area, the cradle of back-to-back wars that shook DR Congo from 1996 to 2002.
In addition to Kabila, Saturday’s summit also included the presidents of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
An M23 delegation was also in Kampala, but not at the summit, which was officially reserved for the nations of the 11-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
M23′s political leader Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero expects to hold separate talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni later in the day.
“There has not been a meeting yet. We are still waiting,” said Rene Abandi, head of external relations for M23′s political wing.
The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday before taking the key town of Sake 20 kilometres to the west the next day.
The M23 has refused to withdraw unless Kabila agrees to direct peace talks with the group.
The United Nations has also accused Uganda of backing the M23 rebels, charges that it, like Rwanda, denies.
Rwanda’s president Kagame was due to hold talks with his counterpart from the Republic of Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, later Saturday, officially on “bilateral relations”.
Sassou arrived Saturday afternoon and was greeted at Kigali airport by Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe.
In DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa, the interior ministry temporarily banned peace protests Saturday, blocking students from holding a planned rally.
”The interior ministry said demonstrations were banned to give diplomacy a chance,” student leader Dieumerci Bebeto told AFP.
An interior ministry source confirmed the ban on condition of anonymity.
“Not all demonstrations are banned. There are certain demonstrations that are liable to lead to destruction and violence, and those are temporarily suspended,” the source said.
The move came after several thousand women, including Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers, marched Friday against the violence.
Protesters have staged demonstrations in several DR Congo cities since the rebels seized Goma, sometimes turning violent and throwing stones.
Three people died at a protest in Kisangani, the capital of the eastern province of Orientale, according to UN-sponsored broadcaster Radio Okapi.
The UN has come in for criticism at the rallies, where protesters have accused its peacekeepers of not doing enough to stop the rebels.
The M23 was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers say were never fully implemented.