KAMPALA, UGANDA —
Negotiators at peace talks between the Democratic Republic of Congo's government and the M23 rebel movement have three days left before a deadline set by regional leaders for wrapping up the talks. On Monday, the government delegation will be flying to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and there's hope they may be able to report some kind of progress - although a complete peace deal in the next few days appears to be unlikely.
Since the opening session of these talks last December, all the negotiating has been behind closed doors. The media have caught hardly a glimpse of the two sides actually speaking to each other.
Before a session on Tuesday, though, the lead negotiators, DRC Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda and M23 spokesman Rene Abandi, stood on the lawn outside the conference center and had a conversation lasting about 15 minutes, in front of cameras.
Security kept journalists back just out of earshot. Clearly both men, however, wanted to convey the message that constructive negotiations are going on here: Tshibanda did most of the talking, gesturing expansively and looking relaxed, while the rebel Abandi, a younger man, listened respectfully.
Ugandan journalist Samson Ntale said he thinks this scene has significance. “It’s the first time we saw them in a chat, lasting several minutes. I don’t know whether they were just acting for the media. But if we are to read from the body language, that’s an indication they are heading to a truce,” he said.
Speaking to VOA this week, the spokesman for the government delegation, Francois Muamba, said they hadn’t made any progress at the talks recently. The M23’s Abandi said they haven’t agreed on anything recently that he could reveal. Both men warned there soon could be more fighting.
But the talks' facilitator, Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, gave a more upbeat assessment.
“My reading as the facilitator is that the government and the M23 are still strongly interested and committed to the talks. My expectation is that we shall conclude the dialogue soon,” he said.
Kiyonga also unveiled the priority issues on the agenda. Most of them are the same issues they’ve been discussing for months. Two items not mentioned, though, were amnesty for M23 members and integration of their troops in the Congolese army.
The month the DRC government said it would consider amnesty for M23 members except those suspected of war crimes, rape and pillage. The M23 said they were not too concerned about the amnesty issue and most of their fighters would not want to join, or rejoin, the Congolese army.
Other issues, including the future of the Congo-based Rwandan rebel group FDLR, and the future of Congolese refugees in Rwanda - mostly ethnic Tutsis - could be sticking points, said Aaron Hall, analyst for the human rights organization the Enough Project.
“Just recently we heard from the M23 that they would agree to disarm and demobilize if the Congolese government were to address the outstanding issues of disbanding the FDLR and commit to right of return for Congolese refugee populations in Rwanda, two very difficult issues to solve,” said Hall.
The DRC-M23 conflict flared up last year, after a group of former rebels-turned-soldiers left the army, complaining of poor treatment. M23 later seized territory in Congo's North Kivu province. The sides recently clashed again, as the rebels continue to hold areas north of the provincial capital, Goma.
Several observers said they expect pressure to build at the U.N. General Assembly for the DRC peace talks to be broadened to include other states in the region including Rwanda.
U.N. experts have reported that Rwanda has been supporting the M23, an accusation consistently and strongly denied in capital city Kigali.