Great Lakes Defence chiefs meeting in Goma for “neutral force”

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By Robert Mugabe

Goma-DRC-The defence chiefs of eleven African countries that are part of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) are meeting to discuss the establishment of a neutral force to intervene in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The chiefs of staffs are meeting in Goma in the eastern DRC, the ICGLR’s executive secretary Alphonse Tumbalwaba said yesterday.

Fighting between M23 rebels and Democratic Republic of Congo government forces has displaced nearly half a million people since April and put relations between neighboring countries in the Great Lakes region at peril that have a history of conflict.

Regional African leaders agreed last month on the idea of a “neutral force” to take on Congo-based rebel groups. But when heads of state of east and central African nations met last week in Kampala to discuss the eastern Congo crisis, they failed to agree on whether such a force would be drawn from their own countries or have a broader UN make-up.

Congolese Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda said Kinshasa would accept soldiers from certain central and east African states as part of an international mission, but not from Rwanda and neighbouring states that he did not specify.

Congo favours an expanded role for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo while Rwanda and Uganda, under pressure from the West to cut all links to the M23 insurgency, want a regional force to tackle the rebels.

“(The neutral force) cannot involve Rwandan troops because Rwanda is part of the problem. These negative forces operate on Congolese soil but they come from neighboring countries. So I think these … countries logically shouldn’t be part of this force,” Tshibanda told reporters last Wednesday.

The regional heads of state said they would decide the composition of the force at a later meeting – this will be held tomorrow.

Much criticized the United Nations force with 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo but they have often accused of not doing enough to halt fighting and protect civilians in the vast, unruly central African state, which produces gold, copper, tin, diamonds and other minerals.

Tshibanda said the Congo government was unwilling to negotiate with rebels who have seen their ranks swelled by hundreds of defectors from the Congolese army.

“We don’t want them to survive as a movement, as an ideology, we don’t want to see their actions continue… there is no question about it, and there is nothing to discuss, to negotiate,” Tchibanda told the media.

The M23 name comes from a 2009 peace accord the rebels say was violated by Kinshasa, an assertion denied by the government.

Benjamin Mbonimpa of M23’s political wing said it was ready for dialogue and that the Kampala meeting had failed.

“Whilst they were in Kampala (the army) has been reinforcing its positions… We’ve always said we’re open to dialogue but if they attack us we’ll defend ourselves,” he said last week

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