Representatives of the Congolese government and the M23 rebels signed a preliminary agreement in which both parties accepted responsibility for the failure of an earlier peace deal, a Ugandan mediator said Wednesday, praising both parties as highly committed to the peace talks.
Crispus Kiyonga, the Ugandan minister who is mediating the talks, told reporters that the agreement Wednesday was a breakthrough reached "in the spirit of reconciliation."
Kiyonga said each camp was aware of its contribution to the failure of the March 23, 2009 agreement between the Congolese government and a now-defunct group known as CNDP, a precursor to M23.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army last April after accusing the government of failing to respect the terms of the 2009 peace deal, which incorporated them into the national army. They are mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group that was targeted for extermination during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The rebels are widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, which denies the allegation.
Since December the rebels and the Congolese government have been negotiating in the Ugandan capital Kampala under the banner of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a regional bloc of which both Congo and Rwanda are members. The talks got off to a rocky start, with both parties trading accusations over who was responsible for violence in eastern Congo.
Kiyonga said the agreement reached Wednesday was significant because it established the goodwill necessary for the talks to continue. According to a review of the failed peace deal conducted by the rebels and the Congolese government, he said, 23 provisions of the agreement were either fully or partially respected while 12 were "either poorly implemented or not implemented at all."
Kiyonga said the rebels themselves had violated a provision of that agreement which stated that any disputes were to be resolved through "political means" not militarily. He said both parties view the 2009 agreement as a document that is "still relevant. Accordingly, it is recommended that a monitoring and evaluation mechanism be established."
Last November M23 rebels seized Goma, the biggest city in eastern Congo and a key trading post, but then withdrew under international pressure.
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that Congolese government soldiers and M23 rebels "raped scores of women and committed other war crimes during the rebels' occupation of Goma," a city of 1 million people. The rights group said it wanted those responsible for the violence to be taken to court.
"Ongoing talks among parties to the conflict, countries in the region, and the United Nations should ensure that any agreements include holding those responsible for war crimes to account and that rebel commanders with abusive records do not serve in the Congolese army," the rights group said in a statement.