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British, French Foreign Ministers: DRC Peace Process Could be 'Long Haul' - 2002-01-24


The British and French foreign ministers say they have returned from a peace mission with a better understanding of the situation in central Africa. But they say they have no breakthrough in settling a regional war that has claimed more than 2.5 million lives.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and his French counterpart Hubert Vedrine, have found that their quest for peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is going to be a long and difficult project.

The ministers' goal is to revive a stalled peace agreement signed in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1999.

Troops and militiamen from five neighboring countries are involved in the Congo war, and each faction has political or financial interests in keeping the conflict going.

Britain and France have had a history of rivalry in Africa, but they are now trying to promote a common front for peace in the region, where they are the biggest aid donors.

The foreign ministers visited government leaders and rebel commanders in the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda during their three-day tour.

Foreign Secretary Straw says he and Mr. Vedrine envision more joint visits to keep up the pressure for peace.

"We have to be there for the long haul," he said. "This is not a circumstance where we ever anticipated there would be some headlines of, 'success.' But what we do believe is that working together we can make a much greater difference than working separately."

The officials say they come home with a clearer understanding of the roadblocks they face.

They had expected Congolese President Joseph Kabila to announce a peace gesture - the disarmament and repatriation to Rwanda of more than 1,800 Hutu militiamen in Congo who back his government.

But President Kabila said he wants Rwanda to reciprocate by withdrawing troops it has in Congo that support rebels opposed to his government. Rwandan President Paul Kagame refused to do this, saying the troops provide a defense against Hutu militias.

British Foreign Secretary Straw says the arguments bog down the peace process. "Although there has been a relative calm for the last year, everybody is arguing that it is the other person who has got to make the first move," he said.

While the political leaders bicker, the humanitarian crisis grows. The director of the British charity, Oxfam, is Barbara Stocking. She spoke to VOA during the foreign ministers' stop in Kigali, Rwanda.

"This is one of the worst places in the world in the eastern Congo," she said. "Forty percent of children die by the age of five, I mean that is just phenomenal, nearly half. The maternal mortality is about the highest in the world. You know, these people are living in absolutely dire circumstances."

Britain and France say those kind of conditions could make Congo a breeding ground for terrorism.

Britain and France are preparing an action plan on Africa for this year's summit of the world's leading industrial nations. It will offer investment and trade in exchange for economic and democratic reforms.

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