Peace Deal Struck in Congo

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Government and militia factions have signed a peace deal to end a deadly conflict in eastern Congo. The accord follows weeks of negotiations brokered by the U.N., European Union and U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

However chaotic Pakistan seems, its problems are minor compared to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A war in that African nation formally ended five years ago, yet that has not prevented rebel groups from going right on the battle loosely controlled government forces. That leads to a thread of full-scale civil war. But yesterday, the worrying rebels and militias signed a peace deal with the president of Congo, Joseph Kabila.

Michael Kavanagh was at the peace conference in the town of Goma.

President JOSEPH KABILA (Democratic Republic of Congo): (Speaking in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

MICHAEL KAVANAGH: When Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, officially closed the peace conference, the room full of government officials, representatives from the international community, and rebel leaders erupted in applause.

(Soundbite of singing)

KAVANAGH: Outside the conference, a group of women broke out in song.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

KAVANAGH: This bystander said they're singing for joy because there's finally peace.

The International Rescue Committee estimates that that Congolese conflict has resulted in over 5.4 million deaths in the last decade, making it the world's worst conflict since World War II. In the last year alone, international aide group say that almost half a million Congolese have fled their homes, they were escaping fighting between government troops and the armed group led by diffident Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda. Rene Abandi is the spokesperson for Nkunda's movement.

Mr. RENE ABANDI (Spokesperson, Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo): We are very happy to see at the end an agreement between parties. We will continue fighting, but the fight will become political.

KAVANAGH: Nkunda considers himself the protector of the Congolese Tutsi who are widely despised in eastern Congo for alignment fells with the invading Rwandan army during the Congolese wars. The peace accord calls for Nkunda to disarm. For its part, the government will provide for the safe return of the 40,000 Congolese Tutsi refugees. They will also repatriate the remaining Rwandan-Hutu militia groups who first fled to Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. All parties to the accord agreed to a ceasefire and the deployment of United Nation's peacekeepers to create buffer zones between armed groups. The agreement also calls for amnesty for militia members except those responsible for war crimes or crime against humanity.

The U.S. and the E.U. along with other members of the international community also signed the agreement and will formally oversee the process. Tim Shortley was the chief negotiator for the U.S. during the peace conference.

Mr. TIM SHORTLEY (Chief Negotiator for the U.S.): I think that is what sealed the deal ultimately is a pledge of the international community to play an active role, not a passive role, not just an observing role - but an active role in the implementation of the agreement.

KAVANAGH: For its part, the United States has pledged millions in donor assistance to Congo as well as military training to improve the notoriously unprofessional Congolese army. Shortley says the U.S. is interested in improving security in the region as well as addressing Congo's humanitarian catastrophe.

Mr. SHORTLEY: The situation on the ground has become intolerable - the suffering of the people, the refugees - and we're showing U.S. leadership to try to bring an end to this crisis.

KAVANAGH: But many Congolese are skeptical the peace will hold. The Congo is rife with other problems. For all its vast natural resources, Congo is a country with only 300 miles of roads, few opportunities for employment, and no reliable justice system.

The wounds from the past decade of war are deep and will take at least a generation to heal, says Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch who advised the negotiations. Still, she remains optimistic.

Ms. ANNEKE VAN WOUDENBERG (Researcher, Human Rights Watch): I feel like today, a breath of life was given to the people of eastern Congo. I have never seen this kind of a process before, certainly in my 10 years here. It's the best chance I've seen for peace for these people. I don't think the road ahead will be simple but they've been given a good start today.

KAVANAGH: For NPR News, I'm Michael Kavanagh in Goma.

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