U.S. says renewed Congo fighting risks engulfing region

PARIS Mon Oct 28, 2013 9:43am EDT

Congolese soldiers move to frontline positions as they advance against the M23 rebels in Kibumba, north of Goma October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

Congolese soldiers move to frontline positions as they advance against the M23 rebels in Kibumba, north of Goma October 27, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kenny Katombe

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PARIS (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday renewed fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between the army and M23 rebels risked dragging neighboring countries into the conflict and it urged all sides to return to the negotiating table.

Following two months of relative calm in the region, fighting flared last Friday after peace talks in neighboring Uganda broke down when M23 rebels demanded an amnesty for their leaders. President Joseph Kabila has ruled out a blanket pardon.

Three days of army victories have raised the prospect that it could defeat Congo's most important rebel group, ending a 20-month uprising which has displaced tens of thousands of people, but Washington's special envoy for the region urged restraint.

"There are enormous risks in simply moving forward believing that a military solution is a full answer," Russell F. Feingold told reporters in Paris after returning from a trip to Uganda, Rwanda and Congo.

"It risks bringing in other forces in this matter that could lead to a cross-national war."

Feingold said he backed Kinshasa's view that those who had committed "serious crimes" could not go unpunished and he also said the army's successes were positive in showing it had a credible presence on the ground.

But he said peace talks must resume. "My belief is that this is not a situation for a military solution," he said.

M23 has been weakened by factional infighting and a stream of defections, fuelling a belief that Congo's army - notoriously disorganized, undisciplined and under-supplied - could defeat it. But diplomats say M23 remains a credible fighting force.

On Sunday M23 threatened to withdraw its delegation from the Kampala talks unless there was a quick end to hostilities.

Congo's army, supported by a new U.N. intervention brigade, scored its first victories against the rebel movement in late August, forcing the rebels away from the eastern city of Goma.

Feingold said neither the intervention brigade nor the U.N. mission in Congo (MONUSCO) were prepared to join the Congolese army in a regional war.

"To rely on that scenario would be a mistake," he said.

The U.N. brigade has a tough new mandate to eliminate armed groups, though it has not been directly involved in the past three days of fighting.

M23 began in early 2012 as a mutiny by soldiers demanding the government implement the terms of a 2009 peace deal signed with a previous Rwanda-backed rebel group, many of whose members had been integrated into the army.

U.N. investigators have accused Rwanda of also backing M23, something Kigali strongly denies.

(Editing by Gareth Jones)

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