Representatives of rebels attending peace talks with the Congolese government dodged a crucial meeting Monday at which the government delegation was to respond to earlier criticism, a development that could jeopardize negotiations to end the crisis in eastern Congo.
The talks, which are being held in the Ugandan capital Kampala, got off to a tense start Sunday, when Francois Rucogoza, leader of the M23 delegation, accused the Congolese government of lacking "visionary leadership" and of corruption and incompetence.
The Congolese government delegation on Monday refused to give its rebuttal as earlier planned, saying they can do so only if the M23 delegation is present to hear their side.
If the rebels dig in and refuse to listen to the rebuttal by the Congolese government, it could end the talks before they even start. Raymond Tshibanda, the Congolese foreign minister, told Ugandan mediators and reporters that peace talks would not proceed if there is "bad faith" on the part of the rebels.
"It is important that both sides accept to listen to your wisdom," Tshibanda told Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, the Ugandan official picked by Uganda's president to mediate the talks.
Of the rebels Tshibanda said: "They are not ready to listen."
Kiyonga said he had been informed by an M23 representative earlier on Monday that they had no interest in hearing what the Congolese delegation had to say.
"I personally rang the leader of the M23 and appealed to him to turn up for this meeting," Kiyonga said of Rucogoza, the executive secretary of M23. "He indicated that he was under instructions not to attend this meeting."
Although Ugandan military officials are accused in a recent United Nations report of backing the rebels, the East African country has been mediating talks between the rebels and the Congolese government. A deal struck in Kampala led to the rebels' withdrawal from the eastern provincial city of Goma, which the rebels had taken last month in the face of a Congolese army in disarray.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April. The rebels accuse Congo's government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army. The U.N. report also charged Rwanda with backing the M23, a charge Rwanda denies. Regional leaders under the banner of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a regional bloc of which Congo is a member, last month urged the Congolese government to listen to M23's "legitimate grievances."
It remains unclear if the talks will proceed Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the African Union on Monday welcomed a pledge by the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc, to send troops to stabilize eastern Congo. The AU's Peace and Security Council reiterated its condemnation of the rebellion by M23 and said it is working for the deployment of "a neutral international force" in the region. The Southern African bloc has vowed to provide 4,000 troops for the envisaged neutral force.
The AU statement said the Congolese government has decided to contribute $20 million "to facilitate the early operationalization" of the neutral force. The force's total budget, size and make-up has not yet been determined.
Associated Press reporter Kirubel Tadesse in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.