GOMA, DRC // Ban Ki-moon arrived in eastern Congo yesterday to show support for a floundering peacekeeping force and bolster their efforts in this war-ravaged region. The secretary general's visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo followed talks with leaders in South Africa and Tanzania to address violence in the troubled North Kivu region.
Congolese government troops and rebel groups are accused of looting sprees and committing atrocities against civilians in eastern Congo, forcing more than 800,000 people from their homes in recent months. The largest UN peacekeeping operation, known by its French acronym Monuc, has been criticised for failing to protect civilians and came close to collapse late last year when troops refused to deploy.
In Dar es Salam, Mr Ban met with the former Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, who is co-chairman of peace talks between the Congolese government and a rebel Tutsi group called the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP). Mr Ban's chief political adviser, Nicholas Haysom, said UN officials are "relatively optimistic" about the negotiations taking place in Nairobi, which, he added, could eventually lead to a "region-wide security understanding".
CNDP soldiers have already begun rallying to the Congolese national army, which has been fighting a Hutu militia called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) that is alleged to be responsible for atrocities during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. In a surprise decision for the two former enemies, the Congolese national army joined forces with Rwandan troops last month in a bid to neutralise the FDLR, which has an estimated 6,500 combatants.
Reports indicate that the offensive, conducted with Monuc logistical support, resulted in the deaths or surrender of scores of FDLR fighters, although the force still poses a threat. Rwandan troops began leaving the DRC last week, describing the joint operation as a success. Mr Ban said furthering the rapprochement between the DRC president, Joseph Kabila, and his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, was one of the main objectives of this trip.
"This recent development of the situation is encouraging, but is still fraught with many uncertainties and dangers," Mr Ban said in an interview. "Unless we nurture this process with a strong backing of the United Nations and the international community, this may degrade, then we may go straight back to square one." Mr Ban was due to meet both presidents during his nine-day African trip, which is seeing the world's top diplomat span the full length of the continent with meetings in five countries, including South Africa and Egypt.
The eastern DRC has been racked by conflict, including two wars in the past 15 years. CNDP forces under the command of a renegade Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, seized large swathes of territory in an offensive towards the end of last year. Mr Nkunda's arrest in late January, however, paved the way for talks between the Tutsi rebels, under the new CNDP leadership, and the Congolese government. The negotiations are "going quite positively, but fall short of a complete political accord", Mr Haysom said.
The UN political chief said the negotiations added to optimism about a regional security framework that would see the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi work together to address threats. But he warned that Mr Kabila's government "struggles to exercise its authority" across the country, and the national army, which CNDP soldiers are expected to join, has not been paid for weeks. Bernard Membe, Tanzania's minister for foreign affairs and international co-operation, said he welcomed talks between Kinshasa and the CNDP, but highlighted the potential dangers once a deal is struck.
"We would like to ensure that there is not a vacuum left in all the areas that have been liberated," Mr Membe said. "If the vacuum is not filled out, the FDLR may come back in those areas. So we are asking Monuc and other law enforcement agencies to fill that vacuum." The Africa itinerary has seen Mr Ban fly above the thawing snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro to highlight the dangers of climate change and visit the international war crimes tribunal for Rwanda in the northern Tanzanian city of Arusha.
After leaving the DRC, the secretary general is due to visit Rwanda before winding up in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, tomorrow, for an international pledging conference to rebuild Gaza after Israel's devastating offensive against Hamas. email@example.com