* No time frame for deployment, force will cost $100 mln
* SADC calls for stronger UN peacekeeper mandate
* Eastern Congo ravaged by two decades of violence
* Fighting fuelled by competition for mineral wealth
By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM, Dec 8 Southern African nations
pledged on Saturday to provide 4,000 troops for a neutral force
to be deployed in eastern Congo where rebels have waged an eight
month-long rebellion, the South African Development Community
The regional bloc also urged the United Nations to
strengthen the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force that was
forced to give up defending the city of Goma last month when
Congolese troops fled from advancing M23 rebels.
"This summit strongly condemned the M23 and all its attacks
on the civilian population ... as well as its abuses of human
rights," said Tomaz Salomao, reading a communique at the end of
a summit in Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam.
Under the arrangement, Tanzania will send a battalion of
soldiers and the SADC bloc will "activate" a standby brigade of
about 3,000 soldiers by mid-December.
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, however, said the
standby brigade's deployment would be conditional on
member-states coming up with both the troops and funding.
The idea of a neutral force, which will cost an estimated
$100 million, was first mooted several months ago but
disagreement over where the troops should be drawn from has
hindered its formation.
There has been a lull in the fighting in Congo's eastern
borderlands after the rebels pulled out of Goma earlier this
month, a move they said Congolese President Joseph Kabila had
demanded for peace talks to proceed.
Kabila and South African President Jacob Zuma were among the
six heads of state at the summit.
The rebels, widely believed to be supported by Rwanda, pose
the biggest threat to Kabila in years. Rwanda strongly denies
any involvement in the latest cycle of violence in Congo's
mineral-rich border region.
The ease at which M23 marched into Goma was seen as a major
embarrassment for the U.N. MONUSCO peacekeeping force.
The force said its helicopters had fired hundreds of rockets
at the rebels but was powerless to beat them back once the
Congolese army abandoned its positions.
FOCUS ON TALKS
Tanzania's government spokesman, Assah Mwambene, said SADC
wanted a more robust mandate for MONUSCO.
"SADC member states want the mandate of the U.N.
peacekeeping mission ... to be changed from the traditional
peacekeeping role to peace enforcement activities to enable it
to engage M23 rebels militarily if the need arises," Mwambene
Amani Kabasha, a spokesman for M23's political arm, told
Reuters the rebels had no problem with a SADC-led force.
"But we think the major focus should be put on the
negotiations in Kampala, not on the neutral force. It's peace
talks that will resolve our problems with Kabila, not this
neutral force," Kabasha said from Bunagana in Congo.
M23 is led by members of a previous rebel movement who were
brought into the Congolese army and then mutinied eight months
ago, accusing the government of violating the deal. However,
they are now demanding wider political reform, claiming broad
A rebel delegation is due to meet with a team from the
Kinshasa government, perhaps as early as tomorrow, in the
Ugandan capital, Kampala, Kabasha said. Those talks, though, are
expected to deal only with a framework for later negotiations.
(Additional reporting by Elias Biryabarema in Kampala; Writing
by Richard Lough; Editing by Myra MacDonald)