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Uganda's President Won't Attend Congo Peace Talks - 2001-02-15

Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, is not taking part in Thursday's peace talks on Congo. Uganda supports several Congolese rebel groups and has its own troops far inside the country.

Uganda's leader is staying home to campaign in an increasingly close election. His nearest rival, one-time ally Kizza Besigye, is just four percentage points behind him.

President Yoweri Museveni has consistently pushed this Lusaka peace process as the only way forward for Congo. But political realities at home appear to have forced the Ugandan leader to send his international affairs minister to Zambia instead.

The president is in the final weeks of an increasingly tough campaign for re-election. He is scheduled to hold a series of political rallies in northern Uganda while his neighboring heads of state meet to discuss Congo's civil war.

President Museveni has been an active participant in the Congolese conflict over the last few years. Uganda and Rwanda backed the rebellion that toppled Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and put in power Laurent Kabila. When relations there soured, President Museveni helped anti-Kabila rebels launch their war two-and-a-half-years ago.

In an interview with VOA last month, President Museveni said the mistake in the first war was that rebel supporters did not insist on Congolese politicians organizing themselves before the fall of the Mobutu government in Kinshasa. Without this inter-Congolese dialogue as outlined in the Lusaka accord, President Museveni believes there will be no lasting peace. "Mobutu was not fought by Kabila. Mobutu was fought by external forces, especially Rwanda," Museveni continued. "I think therefore the mistake was not to insist on a Congolese dialogue, an inter-Congolese dialogue before the fall of Kinshasa. That was the mistake. And now it may be the same mistake if we do not insist on an inter-Congolese dialogue and we go off with any permutations of other solutions. We shall end up with the sort of problem of Mobutu," Museveni said.

President Museveni has justified his army's involvement in Congo as a national security issue. The army has been active against cross-border raids by militiamen in the Rwenzori mountians. But Ugandan troops are also far inside Congo. The involvement has become less popular at home following a series of scandals about army profiteering and abuse of power.

Retired army colonel Kizza Besigye has used Congo and corruption in general to attack President Museveni's bid for another five years in office. Opinion polls show the president's lead over Mr. Besigye narrowing ahead of the March 7 election.