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Congo, rebels set to sign peace agreement

The Baltimore Sun

DAKAR, Senegal -- Congo's government reached an agreement yesterday with a renegade general to end an insurgency that has forced more than 400,000 people from their homes and threatened to undermine the new democratically elected government, according to Congolese officials and Western diplomats involved in the negotiations.

Under the terms of the agreement, which was completed yesterday and is expected to be signed today after nearly two weeks of difficult negotiations in the eastern city of Goma, the government and the rebel troops will withdraw from some of their positions and United Nations peacekeeping forces will establish a buffer zone.

A commission of Congolese officials and experts from the United States, the European Union and the African Union will oversee the integration of the rebel troops into the national army and the enforcement of a permanent cease-fire.

The rebels will also be granted amnesty on insurrection charges, which would have carried the death penalty, but they could still face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The agreement will also apply to other militias operating in eastern Congo.

The conflict between the Congolese government and a rebel army led by Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi general, was part of the deadly legacy of the Rwandan genocide, which ensnared Congo in a vast regional conflict that began in 1996 and has limped on to the present despite a peace agreement formally ending the war in Congo in 2003.

"The agreement has really been forged in the face of immense suffering of the people of eastern Congo," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher of Human Rights Watch, who was in Goma to observe the negotiations.

Nkunda has refused to surrender his command and integrate his troops into the national army, as other armed groups have done, arguing that Congolese Tutsis face a unique threat at the hands of the Rwandan Hutu extremists who carried out the genocide in 1994 in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

Many of the perpetrators in that conflict fled into Congo, then known as Zaire, in 1994, and an untold number remain.

The agreement follows a pact signed late last year in Nairobi, Kenya, between the Congolese and Rwandan governments to disarm and repatriate the Rwandan Hutu militias. Diplomats hope that taken together the two deals will help solve some of the most intractable issues at the heart of Congo's seemingly interminable conflict.

"The two agreements together really provided the processes we needed to unlock this," said one Western diplomat close to the negotiations, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. "Now we just need the capacity to follow through."

While diplomats, analysts and human rights advocates hailed the agreement as a historic step in a region torn by violence, many of the most difficult questions remain unresolved, such as the status of Nkunda, the precise arrangements for ensuring the cease-fire and integrating the different forces into the national army, and the potentially explosive return of thousands of Congolese Tutsis living as refugees in Rwanda.

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