Congolese and security experts reacted cautiously Thursday to the announcement of an impending truce in an escalating conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A militia called the M23 has been gaining ground since mounting an offensive in North Kivu province earlier this year, and is within a few dozen kilometers of Goma, a city of about 1 million.
The fighting has sparked a surge in diplomatic tensions with neighboring Rwanda, which Congo accuses of abetting the rebels, a charge that Kigali denies.
On Wednesday, though, talks between the two countries in the Angolan capital, Luanda, gave rise to an agreement for an “immediate cease-fire,” effective from 1600 GMT Friday.
Both sides also agreed to demand “the immediate withdrawal” of the M23 “from the occupied areas.”
However, the M23 rebel group later said the cease-fire announcement “doesn’t really concern us” and called for “direct dialogue” with the DRC government.
“M23 has seen the document on social media. … There was nobody in the summit [from M23], so it doesn’t really concern us,” Lawrence Kanyuka, political spokesman for the M23 (March 23) movement, told AFP.
“Normally when there is a cease-fire it is between the two warring sides,” he added.
The government in Kinshasa has refused to engage with M23 and has ruled out direct negotiations.
Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the fact that the Angolan-brokered meeting had taken place was good news, but he questioned whether the deal, reached by Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, would gain traction.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame was not part of the talks, and his absence was “not a good sign,” said Congolese politician Patrick Mundeke.
According to the deal, if the rebels refuse to cease hostilities and withdraw, the east African regional force being deployed in Goma “will use force” to push them out.
Jean-Claude Bambaze, who heads civil society groups in Rutshuru territory, swaths of which have been captured by M23, said he hoped the rebels would now withdraw.
But, he said, “we are worried, because it won’t have been the first time that [political] decisions are not put into practice.”
Congo and Rwanda agreed to a de-escalation plan in July, but clashes resumed the very next day.
“The Luanda summit is a strong message to the M23, and we salute it,” said Lumumba Kambere Muyisa, a member of a campaign group called LUCHA (Fight for Change).
But, he said, the question was “practicability” — how the agreement would be implemented on the ground.
The M23, a largely Congolese Tutsi militia, first leapt to prominence 10 years ago when it captured Goma, before being driven out and going to ground.
It reemerged late last year, claiming Congo had failed to honor a pledge to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.
The M23 is one of an estimated 120 armed groups that have turned eastern Congo into one of Africa’s most violent regions.
Many of them are legacies of two wars before the turn of the century that sucked in countries around eastern and central Africa and left millions of people dead.
Rwanda denies Congo’s charges against it and accuses Kinshasa of colluding with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda — a former Rwandan Hutu rebel group that was established in Congo after the 1994 genocide.
The East African Community, of which Rwanda is a member, has also vowed to deploy a joint force to quell the violence.
Kenyan soldiers arrived in Congo earlier this month, and Uganda says it will shortly deploy around 1,000 troops.