Peace talks with rebels in eastern Congo should end with the disbandment of the M23 rebel movement, Congo's foreign minister said Tuesday, declaring it a criminally-minded organization that has caused suffering in the country.
Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda delivered his indictment of M23 on Tuesday after representatives of the group did not show up to a meeting Monday where the Congolese government delegation wanted to respond to earlier criticism by the rebels.
M23's executive secretary, Francois Rucogoza, charged on Sunday that the Congolese government lacked "visionary leadership" in a lengthy statement at the start of talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala. The government delegation, which had already delivered a short, formal statement free of accusations, then said it had to respond to accusations of incompetence, xenophobia and corruption before substantive talks could begin.
Tshibanda said Tuesday he wanted the world to get "the real picture of this armed group and what they do in the area." M23, he said, is a criminal organization whose leaders routinely use child soldiers to win wars and whose troops rape women and carry out summary executions in territories they control in eastern Congo.
He denied charges of xenophobia against Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese— one of the strong criticisms raised by the rebels— saying his own peace delegation included some who were of Rwandan descent. Kinyarwanda is a dialect of Rwanda's main language.
"We know that M23 is a negative force and it has to be eradicated," Tshibanda said. "It must stop existing."
M23 representatives in attendance took notes while others listened silently.
The submission by Tshibanda ended the preliminary sessions of the peace talks, and Ugandan mediators said they hope that both parties can overcome the rising tension and negotiate a lasting peace.
Crispus Kiyonga, a Ugandan government minister who is mediating the talks, said negotiations were expected to start Wednesday with a discussion of ground rules, the composition of observer groups, as well as formulating an agenda.
"Tomorrow we should move on to do the substantive work of dialogue," Kiyonga said.
Tshibanda himself said the Congolese government was committed to negotiating with the rebels despite their record.
"No problem is unsolvable in the interest of our people," he said.
M23 is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April after accusing the government of failing to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal that incorporated them into the national army. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, is one of the top commanders of M23. The rebellion has forced thousands of villagers in Congo's North Kivu province to flee their homes in terror.
A recent U.N. report accused the Rwandan government of backing the rebels, a charge Rwanda denies. The report also said some Ugandan military officers were helping arm the rebels and that the rebels' political wing operates freely in Kampala. Uganda has said the claims are baseless.
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." A deal struck in Kampala late last month led to the rebels' withdrawal from the eastern provincial city of Goma, which they had taken in the face of a Congolese army in disarray.
Regional governments have proposed the creation of a "neutral international force" to police eastern Congo, but it remains unclear where the funds would come for and what the make-up of the force would be. The African Union on Monday welcomed a pledge by the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc, to send 4,000 troops for the envisaged neutral force.