Kenya’s former President Uhuru Kenyatta and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame have agreed on the need for M23 rebels to cease fire and withdraw from captured territories in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to the East African Community (EAC) bloc.
Kenyatta and Kagame both agreed via telephone “on the need for an immediate ceasefire”, the EAC said in a statement on Friday. A second round of talks will take place in Angola’s capital Luanda next week, it said.
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“People will be waiting to see if indeed M23 and the Congolese government forces will stop fighting,” Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Goma, the capital of the eastern DRC province of North Kivu, said.
He added that Kenya’s foreign ministry had also confirmed the phone call between the Rwandan president and Kenyatta, who has been mediating peace talks between DRC and rebel groups.
“They’ve been fighting even in the last 12 hours or so. There have been reports of gunfire and bombs still going off and if they will indeed withdraw from those territories ahead of those talks that are meant to start on Monday morning,” Webb said.
M23 fighters have made considerable gains in recent weeks, advancing towards Goma as fighting with government forces intensifies.
Formed in 2012, the M23 rebels seized vast swathes of territory the same year and briefly overran Goma before they were chased out by Congolese and United Nations forces into Uganda and Rwanda the following year.
The M23 signed a peace deal in 2013 after which many of its fighters were integrated into the DRC army.
The armed group started fighting again in late 2021 after lying dormant for years.
They have staged three big offensives since March – the latest, starting at the end of October, has killed hundreds of people and displaced nearly 200,000.
The unrest ignited diplomatic tensions between the DRC and Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the rebels. Rwanda denies the accusation. Last month, the DRC expelled a Rwandan ambassador over the issue.
Regional efforts are under way to ease relations between the two countries and end the conflict unfolding along their border.
Kenyatta visited the DRC earlier this week as facilitator of the EAC-led talks. He had meetings in Kinshasa and visited displaced people in Goma, to which the M23 drew closer this week.
Angola’s President Joao Lourenco mediated a first meeting between DRC and Rwandan officials earlier this month.
“It is encouraging to see Paul Kagame recognise that he can influence the M23,” Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi’s deputy spokesperson told Reuters.
“We will see what happens on the ground,” she added.
Rwanda’s government spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.