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Conflict in eastern DRC threatens region //Yearender//

Successive rounds of armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2004 threatened to undermine the peace effort in Africa's Great Lakes region. The main flash points were in the provinces of North and South Kivu, which border on Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. Two previous wars in the DRC began in the Kivus and observers fear last year’s clashes might spark a third war in 2005. Background A first rebel war in 1996-1997 toppled the regime of the late President Mobutu Sese Seko. However, fighting broke out once again in 1999, ending in 2003 with a peace agreement under which the various rebel groups joined a transitional government, while their combatants were integrated into a unified military. However, the national government has had a difficult time exerting its authority over the entire country, which is the size of Western Europe. Armed groups have continued to vie for control of specific areas. In the Kivus, the main belligerents have been army loyalists and dissident units mostly made up of members of a faction of the former rebel group, Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD), based in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. Other armed forces present in the Kivus include Congolese Mayi-Mayi militiamen, who were integrated into the military from 2003 and Rwandan Hutu rebels who were involved in the 1994 and afterwards fled to the Kivus. They include the Interahamwe militia and the former Rwandan Armed Forces (ex-FAR). These Rwandan groups have been accused of committing atrocities against local communities, including Congolese Tutsis. The DRC-based Rwandan rebels have also been accused of participating in an attack on a refugee transit camp in Gatumba, Burundi, on 13 August, in which 160 Congolese Tutsis were massacred. Fighting in 2004 Clashes between Congolese army loyalists and dissidents began in May when the latter overran Bukavu, capital of South Kivu Province. They held it for several days before withdrawing in early June. An estimated 300 of the dissidents eventually fled to Rwanda. The DRC government and sections of the international community have accused Rwanda of aiding the dissidents, who are mainly Congolese Tutsis. The Rwandan government protested against allegations by closing its border with the DRC for nearly two weeks. In July, however, a UN panel of experts accused both Rwanda and Uganda of maintaining their armed contingents in parts of the DRC, despite the official withdrawal in 2003. The panel also said it had "received and analysed numerous reports of trucks allegedly ferrying weapons and logistical materials to the DRC" through Ugandan and Rwandan border posts. Tension flared again in November between the DRC and Rwandan governments when Rwanda threatened to invade eastern DRC to disarm Hutu rebels who, the Rwandan authorities charged, had fired a rocket into Rwanda on 15 October, injuring three civilians. The Congolese government reacted by announcing that it would deploy an additional 10,000 troops in the east. Fighting broke out in December in North Kivu between the newly deployed Congolese troops and dissident forces. The clashes displaced at least 100,000 civilians. Neighbouring conflicts The insecurity in the Kivus threatened Burundi's peace process. The process began in 2002 and 2003 when four Burundian rebel groups signed ceasefire agreements with the government, prompting refugees to begin returning from Tanzania, while many internally displaced persons went back to their villages. The only rebel group still fighting in Burundi, a faction of the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL), reportedly has ties to the DRC-based Rwandan Hutu groups. The FNL claimed responsibility for the Gatumba massacre, while the Rwandan rebels were allegedly also involved. Regional peace efforts As the instability in eastern DRC continued to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, local and international peace efforts continued, including a yearlong conference on the Great Lakes, sponsored by the UN and the African Union. The conference, estimated to have cost donors almost US $10 million, involved representatives of governments and civil society from more than 12 countries. It culminated on 20 November with an International Declaration on Peace, Security, Democracy and Development in the Great Lakes, signed by heads of states participating in the effort. The declaration was supposed to have signalled a new era of peace and cooperation in the region. "Leaders who have been divided for most of the last decade have come together for peace," said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who witnessed its signing. Within a week, however, Rwanda had threatened to invade eastern DRC. In December, the DRC refused to attend a follow up meeting on an October tripartite security agreement with Uganda, claiming that Rwanda was instigating war, not peace. The three sides had agreed in October to set up a mechanism to monitor border security and resolve disputes. Other DRC conflict zones The Kivus were not the only region in the DRC to have been affected by violence in 2004. Efforts to disarm combatants in the northeastern district of Ituri were largely unsuccessful and widespread fighting and banditry continued there throughout the year. In the southeastern province of Katanga, suspected Mayi-Mayi militiamen overran the mining town of Kilwa in October, forcing 3,000 inhabitants to flee to neighbouring Zambia. All this has taken a toll on the DRC. "People in the DRC are dying at a rate that is one-third higher than the average rate for sub-Saharan Africa," the International Rescue Committee said in a December report.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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