Congolese rebels, government and opposition end civil war

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

KINSHASA, Congo -- Congo's government, rebels and political opposition signed a power-sharing agreement Tuesday, pledging to lead their nation into democracy and lifting the prospects for peace in this vast, resource-rich African country after four years of war and 2.5 million lives lost.

The accord -- which comes after months of negotiation -- follows Congo's signing of deals with Rwanda and Uganda, neighbors that supported rebel forces, and the withdrawal of tens of thousands of foreign fighters from what had been a six-nation conflict known as Africa's First World War.

Under the deal, Congo's two Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel movements will join a transitional government to be led by President Joseph Kabila, pending the country's first democratic elections to be held in about 2 1/2 years.

Kabila will have four vice presidents named from the government, the two rebel groups and the political opposition.

Cabinet positions and parliamentary seats will also be divided among rebels and opposition parties.

A national police force will be drawn from government and rebel areas to maintain law and order in the Congolese capital, rebels said.

An armed U.N. peacekeeping force of 5,537 troops already in Congo will grow to 8,700 to help oversee the arrangement, whose success depends on the uncertain good will of those signing it.

Earlier, partial agreements failed under less promising circumstances.

But with both sides' foreign military allies now out of the fight, and international pressure strong, many hoped rebels and government -- vying for power and Congo's mineral riches -- would accept this deal as the best they would get.

"The Congolese people see this moment as really something that is dramatically new," said South African President Thabo Mbeki, who brokered months of talks that ended with an early morning signing in Pretoria, South Africa.

"Africans could not truly reconstruct the continent without peace in the Congo," Mbeki added.

Congo's war divided the nation into isolated rebel and government sides. Aid groups say most of the casualties were civilians killed by famines, and disease aggravated by the war's disruption of farming and trade routes. The United Nations charges that foreign armies and Congo's leaders on both sides plundered the country -- rich in diamond, gold and uranium -- of untold millions in wealth.

Namanga Ngongi, U.N. special representative for Congo, praised the enemies for overcoming "old reflexes of distrust" and declared the agreement "a landmark for the history of the country."

The war broke out in August 1998 when Rwandan and Ugandan armies plunged deep into Congo, joining with rebels to oust then-President Laurent Kabila. Congo's eastern neighbors accused Kabila of harboring militias that threatened their security, including Rwandan Hutu culprits in that country's 1994 genocide.

At Kabila's pleading, Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent armies to stop the rebel advance.

Combatants signed repeated accords that Kabila, for one, showed no sign of honoring. In January 2001, a young bodyguard shot and killed Kabila at his office desk in Kinshasa.

Peace efforts took off under his son and unelected successor, Joseph Kabila. Facing international pressure, or diverted by crises at home, foreign armies one by one signed cease-fire deals this year and left.

In Kinshasa, the garbage-heaped capital, crowds gathered Tuesday over newspaper headlines declaring that peace had come, and debated if that could be true.

"I hope that this deal will stick," said 50-year-old civil servant Leon Ilunga, voicing a worry shared by many of the signatories themselves.

"Since we negotiated for a political solution to the war, all it takes is commitment from all sides to make it work," insisted Adolphe Onusumba, head of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy rebel movement.

Negotiators clinched the deal when they agreed to divvying up ministries. The Ugandan-backed Congolese Liberation Movement agreed to give up the finance portfolio to the government in exchange for the presidency of the 500-member national assembly, delegates at the talks said.

A nation of 55 million, Congo has never known democracy. Colonial ruler Belgium looted it for decades, then begrudgingly cut it loose, ill-prepared, in 1960.

Backed by the United States, a Cold War ally, Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965 and settled into decades of malign plutocracy, ended by Laurent Kabila's rebel march into Kinshasa in 1997.

Today, while nearly all foreign combatants have withdrawn, scattered unrest persists in the rebel-held northeast and government-held southeast, particularly among rebel splinter groups and tribal fighters.

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