East Africa bloc announces peace talks for eastern DRC

The announcement came as Congolese troops clashed anew with the M23 north of the city of Goma in the volatile east.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi
DRC President Felix Tshisekedi during a joint news conference at the end of the Summit on the Financing of African Economies in Paris, France May 18, 2021 [File: Ludovic Marin/Reuters]

East African leaders on Sunday announced peace talks in a bid to stabilise the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where M23 rebels clashed with troops just north of its key city of Goma over the weekend.

The seven-nation East African Community (EAC) stated that it would hold a “peace dialogue” on eastern DRC on November 21 in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

The announcement came as Congolese troops clashed anew with the M23 north of the volatile region’s main city Goma, officials said.

Army sources told news agencies the military had engaged the M23 in Mwaro, a village about 20km (12 miles) north of Goma, a commercial hub of one million people.

“We woke up to fighting this morning,” one army official told the AFP news agency.

Another said the situation was complex, with M23 fighters killed “en masse” and dead on the Congolese army’s side too.

Deadly clashes lasted until Sunday night at Kibumba, another settlement about 20km from Goma, according to local residents and security officials.

Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb reporting from the region, said Congolese government forces, repelled M23’s attack on the town of Kibumba with more than a day of heavy fighting, even as Kinshasa continues to point fingers at its neighbour Rwanda.

“The Congolese army, says that they’re fighting soldiers from Rwanda and Uganda. The rebel group is widely understood to be a proxy of Rwanda, although Rwanda denies it. And so, people have fled…to try and get away from the fighting.”

“Meanwhile, community leaders on the other side of the frontline have told us that about 60,000 people are stuck behind the front line in the territory held by the M23 rebel group and that they want a humanitarian corridor to be created so they can leave that area before the fighting gets closer to them,” Webb said.

M23 rebels have recently surged across the DRC’s North Kivu province, winning a string of victories against the army and capturing swaths of territory.

On Saturday, the group accused the Congolese army of retaliating with “barbarian bombings” – killing 15 civilians, including two children. Al Jazeera was unable to independently confirm the death toll.

The latest violence comes one day after Kenyan troops were deployed to eastern DRC, as part of a peacekeeping operation from the EAC bloc.

A mostly Congolese Tutsi group, the M23 first leapt to prominence in 2012 when it briefly captured Goma before being driven out and going underground.

The group re-emerged in late 2021, taking up arms again on claims that the DRC had failed to honour a promise to integrate them into the army, among other grievances.

The M23’s resurgence has cratered relations between the DRC and its smaller neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the militia.

Despite official denials from Kigali, an unpublished report for the United Nations seen by AFP in August pointed to Rwandan involvement with the M23.

Kinshasa expelled Rwanda’s ambassador at the end of last month, as the M23 captured more territory, while also recalling its envoy from Kigali.

The ratcheting tensions have spurred a bout of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco met Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa on Saturday, for example, after visiting Rwanda the previous day.

On Sunday, Kenya’s ex-President Uhuru Kenyatta, the EAC’s mediator for the situation, was also due in Kinshasa for talks.

The EAC on Sunday said it would hold talks aimed at bringing peace to eastern DRC in Nairobi this month. But it did not specify stakeholders in the talks nor how long they were scheduled to last.

The announcement comes just days after Kenyan troops began to arrive in Goma over the weekend as part of a regional peacekeeping force established by the EAC in April.

Kenya’s Parliament approved the deployment of about 900 soldiers for an initial period of six months. While the force will be under Kenyan command, its total size and scope remain unclear.

In August, Burundi also sent troops to join the regional force in DRC.

Earlier this month, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC has withdrawn troops from the eastern military base of Rumangabo, ceding ground in the battle against the M23.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies