Shades of Congo's Troubled Past Appear

Former President of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo,  Mobutu Sese Seko i i

Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, shown in October 1988. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images
Former President of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo,  Mobutu Sese Seko

Mobutu Sese Seko, the former president of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, shown in October 1988.

Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila i i

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila.

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Gen. Laurent Nkunda i i

Gen. Laurent Nkunda Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images
Gen. Laurent Nkunda

Gen. Laurent Nkunda

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People carry their belongings down a road i i

People carry their belongings down a road in Mugunga, near Goma. Residents have been fleeing refugee camps on the outskirts of the provincial capital due to fighting between government troops and rebel soldiers loyal to dissident Gen. Laurent Nkunda. Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images
People carry their belongings down a road

People carry their belongings down a road in Mugunga, near Goma. Residents have been fleeing refugee camps on the outskirts of the provincial capital due to fighting between government troops and rebel soldiers loyal to dissident Gen. Laurent Nkunda.

Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images

A little more than four years after the close of the fiercest war in African history, the Democratic Republic of Congo is bracing for what could be another spasm of violence.

A rebellion led by a former army general in eastern Congo threatens to reignite ethnic hatreds and undo years of effort to disarm fighting factions. It could also wreck efforts to develop the rich resources belonging to one of the world's poorest populations.

But experts say that lost opportunities in the past could offer some valuable lessons for the United States and the international community to help head off another war.

The Horrors of War

The horrors of war are a constant memory in Congo. The latest conflict, a five-year battle ending in 2003, was one of the deadliest since World War II. Eight countries were drawn into what is sometimes known as the Great War of Africa. Famine, disease and fighting killed nearly 4 million people. Millions more fled, only to wind up in the near-permanent displacement of refugee camps.

Mauro De Lorenzo, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says Congo's recent woes began with an earlier refugee crisis. Between 1994 and 1996, at least a million Hutu tribal members crossed the border from Rwanda. Most were fleeing revenge, after a Hutu-led genocide killed at least 500,000 Tutsis and thousands of moderate Hutus.

Hiding among the Hutu refugees were former militia fighters who had actively taken part in the genocide.

"We as American taxpayers were nourishing and providing succor to people who had just committed genocide," says De Lorenzo. "They managed to control the aid and use it to re-arm."

He says the first Congo War might have been prevented if Congo's neighbors and the international community had been more aggressive in separating the extremists from the other Rwandan refugees.

Backing Laurent Kabila

Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was losing his grip on the country after 30 years in power, and he did nothing to stop the Hutu militias from staging raids back into Rwanda. That led Rwanda and neighboring Uganda to back Congolese rebel groups led by Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu in 1997.

Kabila's victory in the civil war didn't bring peace to much of the country.

For one thing, his allies from Rwanda and Uganda ignored his requests to remove their troops from Congolese territory. A United Nations report later accused the two countries of systematically looting Congolese resources, including diamonds and cobalt. When Kabila finally ordered them out in the summer of 1998, they switched their support to anti-Kabila rebels who launched an offensive toward the capital city, Kinshasa.

Kabila's government might have fallen if it were not for the backing of other regional powers. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe sent troops, reportedly in return for contracts that allowed his family-owned companies to exploit hundreds of millions of dollars worth of mineral resources in eastern Congo.

Kabila also received support from Angola, Namibia, Chad and Libya. Sudan cooperated by supporting rebel groups in Uganda. Despite U.N. mediation efforts and a series of ceasefire agreements, the fighting boiled on.

Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph. The younger leader was able to hold out until his opponents began to exhaust their resources and to fight among themselves. Both Rwanda and Uganda signed peace agreements and withdrew their troops in late 2002.

Accusations of Atrocities

The end of the war brought an end to much of the foreign intervention in Congo's affairs, but internal rebel groups have continued to raid and abuse civilians in the eastern provinces. Among the most powerful groups is the Forces Democratique de la Liberation du Rwanda, or FDLR, the Hutu militia that's blamed for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But all sides, including the Congolese Army and the United Nations peacekeeping force, have been accused of atrocities, including gang-rape, sexual slavery, mutilation and forced cannibalism.

The American Enterprise Institute's De Lorenzo says Kabila should never have cooperated with the FDLR, which has been on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations for years. He points out that Kabila could use American help in expanding his political base so that he doesn't need the Hutu militia's support.

The latest convulsion in Congo seems to have all the elements that have led to war in the past.

A former Congolese army commander, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, has assembled a sizable rebel force over the past several years, claiming to want to prevent genocide against members of his own Tutsi tribal group. Like most other armed groups in the region, Nkunda and his troops have repeatedly been accused of war crimes and atrocities, and he is under investigation by the International Criminal Court.

Early this year, the Congolese government attempted to integrate Nkunda's troops back into the national army, but he broke away again. A recent U.N. report says the rebel force presents the single most serious threat to stability in the Congo.

President Bush met last month with President Kabila at the White House, and he congratulated the Congolese leader on organizing and winning free and fair elections in 2006. For his part, Kabila said his government needs continued support from the United States to extend stability and development throughout the country.

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