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After Congo rebels end fight, challenges remain

Wednesday - 11/6/2013, 6:12pm  ET

A truck carries passengers and cargo along the road from Rutshuru to Goma, eastern Congo, Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. Within the area recently recaptured by the national army, civilians were enjoying the newly found freedom of movement and the absence of the road taxes formerly levied by the M23. But in this mineral-rich region wracked with violence for nearly two decades by a myriad of armed groups, though, the government’s declared victory over M23 brings only cautious optimism.(AP Photo/Joseph Kay)

JOSEPH KAY
Associated Press

KIBATI, Congo (AP) -- A Congolese army mortar shell destroyed Emmanuel Kazingufu's home in mid-August as soldiers hunted down M23 rebels. Now that the rebels have given up their fight, the 27-year-old is rebuilding.

In mineral-rich eastern Congo, wracked by violence for nearly two decades by a myriad of armed groups, the government's victory over the M23 rebels brings only cautious optimism.

"I am not sure this is the end of the M23. I learned that they had fled to Rwanda --that's where they came from. They could come back," Kazingufu said Wednesday as he worked on reconstructing his home with wooden planks.

The 19-month rebellion forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, many of whom have sought refuge too many times before. Now the government must disarm the M23 fighters and negotiate with other renegade militias to establish a sustainable peace, experts say.

On Wednesday, the Congolese flag again flew in Chanzu, the former fief of M23 leader Sultani Makenga, who is believed to have fled the country as his movement disintegrated. Congolese authorities found a stash of some 300 tons of weapons left behind there, Gov. Julien Paluku said.

M23's promise to end its rebellion "signals an important milestone," said Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator for Congo, adding that attention must now shift to eliminating other threats to civilians.

"The demise of one group doesn't spell the end of conflict in the country's east," he said.

"Now, more than ever, the Congolese government and international community must take steps to ensure that other groups don't move in to fill the space left by the disbanding of M23."

On Wednesday, the head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo pledged to do just that.

"Armed groups should know that we're not going to leave a void. We are going to respond with force against all threats to the civilian population," Martin Kobler said.

The greatest remaining menace comes from the FDLR, a group led by Rwandan Hutus who helped commit the 1994 genocide and later escaped to Congo. The presence of the FDLR has prompted Rwanda to invade Congo twice before in an attempt to wipe out the group. It also has provoked a series of Congolese Tutsi rebellions, including the latest one launched by M23 in April 2012.

While the FDLR has weakened in recent years, analysts say it is still well entrenched and its presence in eastern Congo is a reason many of the other armed groups say they exist.

Even as the Congolese military celebrated its victory, attention began shifting to the tasks now ahead to secure the peace.

Kobler briefed a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York by videolink, and China's U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi, the council president, said members will be responding with "a very important message" to help countries in the region achieve peace and security on a wide scale.

France's U.N. Ambassador, Gerard Araud, said his country will circulate a draft presidential statement later Wednesday.

"This success is only the beginning," Araud said. "M23 combatants must now be disarmed. The Congolese administration needs to get back to the areas that were recovered and provide basic services to the population. All other armed groups beside the M23 which threaten civilians in the Kivus need to be neutralized ... and finally the states of the region must deal with the root causes of the conflict."

Rwanda's U.N. ambassador, Eugene Richard Gasana, said the Congolese army and U.N. peacekeeping troops, including its new intervention brigade, must go after the FDLR immediately. "Otherwise I won't let them sleep," he said.

Congo's U.N. Ambassador, Ignace Gata, told reporters his country wants a durable peace. "Today we are happy to have ended the rebellion, but we know the work is not finished."

Russ Feingold, special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and Congo, said in a conference call with U.S. State Department reporters Wednesday in Washington that an agreement has been negotiated with the M23 and could be signed this week or early next week in Uganda.

That agreement has "very specific provisions" for how the group will be disarmed and protected from other fighters operating in the region. The Congolese government also must resolve the issue of who will be eligible for amnesty and reintegration.

"If this agreement goes through the way I hope it will and believe it will, it will only provide amnesty for the rank-and-file members of M23 for purposes for having been part of a rebellion," he said.

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