KIGALI/KAMPALA (Reuters) - The presidents of Rwanda and Uganda told U.N. Security Council envoys on Monday that their countries were not responsible for bringing peace to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile east, which has long been mired in conflict and is bristling with armed groups.
Envoys from the 15-member council met with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali and then President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala after spending two days in Congo visiting the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping operation.
Millions of people have been killed by violence, disease and hunger since the 1990s as rebel groups have fought for control of eastern Congo’s rich deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, cobalt and uranium.
Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said both Kagame and Museveni described an 18-month rebellion by the M23 guerrilla group as just a symptom and not a cause of Congo’s problems, which were much more deep-seated in issues such as a lack of governance.
“(They said) it was really up to (Congolese President Joseph) Kabila to resolve those issues. The international community could still help, but it wasn’t the responsibility of Rwanda and it wasn’t the responsibility of Uganda,” Lyall Grant told reporters.
“They felt that Kabila had made a lot of mistakes and that he didn’t have control of his own troops and that was the fundamental issue - not anything else about cross-border interference,” he said.
U.N. experts have accused Rwanda of supporting M23, which is mainly led by ethnic Tutsis, a charge that Kigali has rejected. The roots of the rebellion in the region lie in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where Hutu troops killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Some Security Council envoys described Kagame as defensive during the meeting. He told them that Rwanda, where Tutsis and Hutus have reconciled after the genocide, should not be lectured on what was needed to bring peace to eastern Congo.
“It’s going to be the people and the countries in the region who determine whether or not there is peace,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power told reporters after the meeting with Kagame.
“The armed groups need to be eliminated and every country in the region needs to use whatever leverage it has to get rid of those groups,” said Power. “That’s the only hope the people in the region have.”
During a visit by the ambassadors to the eastern Congolese city of Goma on Sunday, U.N. officials said while M23 had captured global headlines, just as great a threat was posed by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Islamist group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).
M23 has accused the Congolese army of receiving military support from the FDLR, an accusation Kinshasa rejects.
Civil society leaders in North Kivu, where Goma is the capital, told the council envoys that the Congolese government controlled only about 25 percent of the province, while the rest was in the hands of dozens of armed groups.
African leaders signed a U.N.-mediated regional accord in February aimed at ending two decades of conflict in eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda both said they were committed to implementing the pact, U.N. diplomats said.
Museveni said he had to deploy more troops on the Ugandan border with Congo because of the threat posed by the ADF. The Ugandan government says the ADF is allied to elements of Somalia’s al Shabaab movement, an al Qaeda-linked group.
Congolese forces, with the help of a new U.N. Intervention Brigade that has a mandate to neutralize armed groups, successfully pushed M23 fighters away from Goma - a city of one million people - in August. The military defeat forced M23 to return to peace talks being brokered by the Ugandan government.
During the meeting with Museveni, Lyall Grant said envoys were told “that there was a real chance of reaching agreement in the next few days,” but diplomats were wary of that prediction because there were still outstanding issues to be resolved.
The United Nations said on Saturday that a third of child soldiers who had escaped from M23 were lured from Rwanda with promises of cash, jobs and education.
The United States, which has called on Rwanda to drop its support for the M23 rebels, stepped up pressure on Kigali last week by moving to block military aid over the recruitment of M23 child soldiers in its territory.
“I don’t expect you to hear me say that we are happy, we are not,” said Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo. “Rwanda does not tolerate children being enrolled in any way near armed groups, not in our own army, and that’s Rwanda’s position.”
“Our belief is that once this crisis (in Congo) is resolved, once we get rid of these armed groups then there will be no longer the issue of child soldiers,” she told reporters.
(This story is corrected with description of leadership of M23 in paragraph 7)
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Christopher Wilson