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Congolese President Kabila Signs Cease-Fire With Rebels

By Jon Jeter
THE WASHINGTON POST -- JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Rebel leaders who took up arms 13 months ago to topple Congolese President Laurent Kabila signed a cease-fire plan Tuesday aimed at ending a civil war that has drawn five neighboring African countries into battle.

Hailed as a pivotal step toward bringing peace to Africa’s third-largest country, the peace plan leaves unresolved many of the issues that sparked the rebellion, analysts warned.

If the cease-fire holds, the peace pact calls for international peacekeepers to take up positions inside Congo. The United Nations has alerted 90 peace monitors to enter Congo next week to prepare for deployment of a larger peacekeeping force that U.N. officials estimate would require at least 25,000 troops.

The White House said in early July that the United States would consider participating in a multinational peacekeeping force, but an administration official in Washington emphasized Tuesday that no decision has been made.

The signing of the pact in Lusaka, Zambia, Tuesday by 50 leaders of the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy follows months of diplomatic efforts to untangle the complex issues and motivations of each of the warring parties. Congo and the other five nations involved in the war signed the document six weeks ago, but divisions within the rebel group led its leaders to boycott the peace process until Tuesday.

While negotiators expressed optimism at Tuesday’s breakthrough, they acknowledged that, at best, the pact constructs a framework to achieve lasting peace.

“The signing itself does not mean peace,” said Zambian President Frederick Chiluba, the chief mediator in the negotiations. “It is the beginning of a long process that will go through difficult phases.”

The accord calls for fighting to stop within 24 hours of its signing, followed by the formation of a joint military commission that includes the rebels, Congolese government and each of the foreign powers involved in the conflict. The agreement also schedules Congolese elections next July.

But the war’s most combustible issues were left unresolved -- most notably the continuing conflict between ethnic Tutsis and Hutus on Congo’s volatile eastern border with Rwanda.

Though the Congolese Rally for Democracy ostensibly started the rebellion in August 1998 over Kabila’s autocratic leadership, the rebels were supported by Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government, which was keen on halting cross-border raids by Rwandan Hutu extremists based in Congo. The exiled Hutus are remnants of the Rwandan troops and militiamen, known as the Interahamwe, who killed more than a half-million Tutsis in 1994 before the Tutsi rebel force that forms Rwanda’s current government halted the genocide and drove the Hutu extremists into Congo.

The Hutus’ raids from safe havens across the border drove Rwanda to back an earlier rebellion in Congo, which toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and put Kabila in power in May 1997. But when Kabila failed to bring peace to the border region, Rwanda turned against him and supported the current rebellion, along with Uganda. At the same time, Kabila made common cause with the Hutu extremists, arming and training them to fight the rebels.

With Kabila and Rwanda now nominally at peace, the fate of the Hutu extremists is uncertain. Few expect to disarm, and many expect them to continue trying to destabilize their home country from inside Congo.

“The Lusaka accord (is) a broad framework document designed to draw in and mollify the various belligerents,” said Richard Cornwell, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies, a Johannesburg think tank. “But the whole deal still rests on what would happen on the ground, not just 24 hours after the signing ... but later on with the number and seriousness of cease-fire violations and, even more difficult, the disarming of militia groups, including the ... Interahamwe.”

A year ago, it appeared that the rebels would quickly topple Kabila after only 15 months in power. In the opening weeks of the rebellion, rebel forces and Rwandan and Uganda army troops flew cross-country from their strongholds in eastern Congo to the far west, making straight for the capital, Kinshasa. But Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia sent troops, weapons and warplanes to bolster Kabila, fending off a siege of the capital in late August of last year.

The rebels gradually gained control of more than a third of Congolese territory. Battles fought deep in the vast country’s thick forests claimed an unknown number of victims and put some of Congo’s rich mineral resources under the control of the rebels and their backers.

But the war ground to a stalemate, the rebel groups splintered and squabbled among each other, and Chiluba and mediators from Tanzania and South Africa pressed hard for peace.