KAMPALA (Reuters) - African leaders failed on Wednesday to agree on the make-up of a proposed neutral force to tackle the insurgency in eastern Democratic of Congo, diplomats at a regional meeting said.
Fighting between M23 rebels and Congolese government forces has displaced nearly half a million people since April. Regional leaders last month brokered a deal for a “neutral force” to be set up to take on Congo-based rebel groups.
But the heads of state of east and central African nations meeting to discuss the eastern Congo crisis were divided over whether the troops for a mission to Congo would be drawn from regional countries alone, or would be an international force.
Rwanda and Uganda, under pressure from the West to cut all links to the M23 insurgency, want a regional force to tackle the rebels. But Congo has in the past resisted such calls, favoring an expanded role for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.
All 11 members of the International Conference of Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) signed a final communique in Kampala, pledging to seek “home-grown solutions” to the fighting.
But a diplomat who declined to be identified said the agreement lacked any real solutions about which countries would provide the troops and who would fund them.
“They’ve just kicked the can down the road,” he said.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni said the heads of state would meet again in four weeks to discuss the findings of defense ministers who were asked to look into the size and make-up of such a force and its logistical requirements.
The U.N. Security Council last week demanded an end to foreign support for the Tutsi-led M23 rebels, a rebuke diplomats said was aimed at Rwanda and Uganda.
Rwanda has denied accusations by U.N. experts that its military officials have provided equipment and recruits for the M23 rebellion. Uganda has also rejected similar accusations.
Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Okello Oryem told reporters Congo President Joseph Kabila has agreed for troops from regional ICGLR states to tackle the M23 rebels.
But Congolese Defence Minister Alexandre Luba Ntambo did not confirm this. He said the “composition and the size of the international neutral force” was to be discussed when the committee of defence ministers meets.
Benjamin Mbonimpa, a member of M23’s political wing, said representatives from his group were ready for dialogue.
“In my opinion they haven’t moved forward,” he said. “We are actors in the conflict, but the Congolese government wants to negotiate with other actors who aren’t on the ground.”
The U.N. has more than 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo but has often been hard pressed to halt fighting and protect civilians in the vast, unruly central African state which produces gold, copper, tin, diamonds and other minerals.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said there was a need to try a regional force this time around.
“We’ve had an international force in the DRC in the last 13 years and here we are, if not the same then more instability in the region,” she said after the meeting.
“What we expect to get from the chiefs of defence ... is a clear picture of what this force should look like.”
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Wednesday a “terrible” humanitarian situation was developing in eastern Congo.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged Rwanda and other Great Lakes states to stop supporting the M23 rebels. Donors including the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Germany have suspended some of their financial aid to Rwanda over the accusations that it is backs the rebels.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in eastern Congo; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Rosalind Russell