Tensions are rising between Congo and neighbor Rwanda as Congo tries to fight a rebellion in its east that it accuses Rwanda of supporting. Regional leaders traveled to Uganda's capital on Monday for a summit aimed at easing the conflict that has plagued Congo since April.
Uganda is hardly a neutral venue, however, as the country is also trying to shrug off allegations that its military is fighting alongside M23 rebels, a group of former government soldiers who staged a mutiny and then engaged Congolese forces in intense battles that sent thousands of terrified villagers fleeing into Uganda and Rwanda.
Last month Congo's President Joseph Kabila told reporters in Kinshasa, the country's capital, that Rwanda's support for M23 was an "open secret" and that his government would investigate accusations that Uganda also backs the rebels.
Uganda's foreign affairs minister has described the allegations as "rubbish," and the eastern African country's leaders now say they are investigating reports that M23 rebels have been seen wearing Ugandan military uniforms and that a rebel commander gets around in a vehicle associated with the Ugandan army.
Rwanda, which has been singled out as providing support for the rebels in a U.N. report, denies any involvement in the Congo rebellion.
The Congolese government said last week it wouldn't negotiate with the new M23 rebel movement, but that dialogue is possible with neighboring Rwanda.
The presidents of Rwanda and Congo were expected to arrive Monday for the two-day summit that begins Tuesday. Leaders from 11 countries forming the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region will participate in the summit.
The meeting in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, follows a similar one last month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where regional leaders resolved to work together to end the violence in eastern Congo. The summit established that the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region "shall work with the AU and the U.N. for an immediate establishment of a neutral international force to eradicate" Congo's newest rebellion and other fighters terrorizing civilians in the country's mineral-rich east. The African Union said it could help by sending soldiers.
Congo already has the largest peacekeeping force in the world, with nearly 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers serving. But Congo's army â€" ill-equipped, ill-paid and demoralized â€" is accused of pillaging and raping civilians as often as are the rebels and militias, putting U.N. peacekeepers in an invidious position.
East Congo's conflict is a hangover from Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Hundreds who participated in the killings of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus escaped into Congo and still fight there today.
The M23 rebels are the latest incarnation of a group of Congolese Tutsi rebels set up to fight Rwandan Hutu rebels in Congo. The group is allegedly led by renegade Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court but whose current whereabouts are unknown. The M23 fighters launched their rebellion earlier this year after accusing the Congolese government of failing to hold up their end of a March 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the army.
Okello Oryem, Uganda's foreign affairs minister, said on Monday that he was "positive" the summit in Kampala would come up with a clear mechanism to end the violence in eastern Congo, but experts say the idea of a neutral force in eastern Congo faces challenges.
Angelo Izama, a political analyst with a Kampala-based security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, predicted that the force would come under a "a barrage of resistance" from several quarters.
"The economy of peacekeeping will mean that the idea of a neutral force will face stiff resistance," Izama said. "That's the first hurdle....And then the project will struggle to find funding."
African Union officials have previously proposed the creation of a force to hunt the notorious Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, but that mission has not started because it lacks money and troops. Most of the active members of Kony's Lord's Resistance Army are now hiding in Congo, according to Ugandan army officials. Congolese officials have denied Uganda permission to enter Congo in pursuit of the rebels.
Relations between Congo and Uganda have been governed by suspicion over the years. In the 1990s Uganda was one of several African countries that sent their militaries into Congo to support rival militia groups. The International Court of Justice later ruled that in that invasion Uganda had violated Congo's sovereignty and then plundered its natural resources.