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Congo Peace Talks Open in South Africa - 2002-02-25

The latest round of Congolese peace talks has officially kicked off in South Africa. But not all the parties took part in the opening ceremony of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue.

Rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba of the Congolese Liberation Movement skipped the official opening ceremony. He had earlier threatened to boycott the talks entirely, but agreed to come at the last minute. Mr. Bemba made it clear by his absence, however, that he is not happy with the way the talks have been set up.

The opening of the dialogue was delayed by about five hours. Sources close to the talks indicate the parties were involved in intense negotiations in a bid to convince Mr. Bemba to attend the opening. Those efforts apparently failed, but a South African government spokesman insists the rebel leader will be taking part in the bulk of the talks, which are scheduled to continue for 45 days.

The facilitator of the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, former Botswanan President Ketumile Masire urged everyone present to put aside their personal agendas and work for the good of the Congolese people.

"The Inter-Congolese Dialogue is not intended to serve the narrow sectional interests of individuals or groups of individuals," he said. "A great responsibility is placed on you to deliver your own country from self-annihilation."

More than 300 delegates are attending the talks, representing some 20 Congolese political parties, rebel groups and civil society. The dialogue takes place against the surreal backdrop of Sun City, South Africa. It is an elaborately themed resort and casino literally carved into a hillside in a rural part of the country. The delegates will eat their meals every day with the sound of slot machines jingling in the background.

The host, South African President Thabo Mbeki, told delegates their work, stopping the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is vital to the advancement of Africa as a whole.

"The Inter-Congolese Dialogue is therefore about the future of our continent," he said. "The sovereign decisions you will take about your country will help to inform the answer to the question whether we as Africans have the will and capacity to pull our continent and our peoples out of misery, indignity, poverty and underdevelopment. What you will do will help answer the question whether we as Africans have the will and the capacity to solve our problems by peaceful measures."

That sentiment was echoed by a number of other African leaders who attended the opening ceremony to show their support for Congolese peace efforts. Southern African Development Community chairman and Malawian President Bakili Muluzi called the war "a crime against humanity" that has taken far too many lives already.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who chairs the Organization of African Unity, told the Congolese delegates their country "has bled enough."

"The people have not chosen you to be master, but to be their servant. The mandate you have is therefore to implement the wish of the people of Congo for peace," he said. "The people of Congo want peace now. They need peace now, and they deserve to have peace now. Peace tomorrow means death today."

The Congolese civil war has cost some two-and-a-half-million lives since it began in 1998. It has drawn in at least five foreign armies, with Rwanda and Uganda backing the rebels, and Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia supporting the government.

The United Nations is sponsoring peace talks that include those foreign governments. The Inter-Congolese Dialogue is aimed at making sure the Congolese people themselves have a voice in the future of their own country.