Ann Eveleth and Khareen Pech
South African troops could soon enter the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a 30 000-strong international peacekeeping force tasked to end the month-old conflict.
The planned emergency force - mooted during a series of crisis talks in Durban this week - would draw together a combined total of 18 000 United Nations and Organisation of African Unity (OAU) peacekeeping troops; an estimated 2 000 British and 5 000 French troops stationed in neighbouring Congo (Brazzaville); about 2 000 United States troops now in Kampala, Uganda; and a further 4 000 US marines understood to be already in the region.
The deployment is one part of a three- pronged strategy under discussion to resolve the conflict which has already engaged at least six African nations in military combat, and which threatens to further engulf sub- Saharan Africa. A new front could be opened up in Angola.
The strategy - which also includes the withdrawal of all foreign troops currently fighting in the Congo and the establishment of an interim political structure to oversee a democratic political transition - emerged during a “mini-summit” on the crisis headed by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in Durban this week.
Annan has conducted serious negotiations with Congolese President Laurent Kabila, Angolan President Jos Eduardo dos Santos, Namibian President Sam Nujoma, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu.
The talks, which ran parallel to the 12th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Durban this week, followed a UN Security Council statement on Monday which effectively denounced both the rebellion that sparked the conflict and the military intervention by external forces. The Security Council called for “a peaceful solution to the conflict ... including an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of all foreign forces and the initiation of a peaceful process of political dialogue with a view to national reconciliation”.
The UN response effectively vindicated the diplomatic position President Nelson Mandela and nine other Southern African Development Community (SADC) members have maintained in the face of the Zimbabwean-led military intervention two weeks ago.
The Security Council mandated Annan to consult regional and OAU officials in a bid to end the conflict. While Annan and OAU Secretary General Salim Salim conducted this week’s crisis talks in Durban, sources say the position taken by the two organisations also effectively mandated Mandela to take the regional lead in negotiating an end to the conflagration.
The three-pronged strategy is understood to enjoy the backing of the UN, the OAU, the Mandela-led SADC bloc and most of the Third World nations represented at the NAM summit.
South African and other potential peacekeeping troops are understood to have already begun mobilising. At least 900, and perhaps as many as 1 800 South African troops, are said to be on standby, with a contingent already engaged in training manoeuvres off the East African coast. US and European troops moved into the region at the start of the conflict to evacuate their citizens from the Congo, and have remained on alert.
But implementation of the new strategy depends on the level of agreement the regional and world bodies are able to extract from the warring nations.
The Durban summit occurred against a backdrop of ongoing fighting in the Congo, with skirmishes reported late this week between Congolese allied forces and the Rwandan/Ugandan-backed rebels in Kalemie, as other troops gathered in Kabila’s southern stronghold of Lubumbashi.
Bolstered by two weeks of successful counter- insurgency operations by Zimbabwean, Angolan and Namibian troops - together with South African mercenaries - in western Congo, Kabila remained belligerent in the face of growing international pressure for a ceasefire. He skipped a meeting with Annan, Salim, Mugabe, Nujoma and Dos Santos on Wednesday, but later met Annan separately.
While Kabila’s surprise appearance at the NAM summit was welcomed by world leaders, he had not publicly shifted his demand for an “unconditional withdrawal” of Rwandan and Ugandan forces.
In the face of Kabila’s hardline stance, world leaders shifted their attention to a strategy aimed at forcing him into a proverbial corner. Unable to muster his own defences when the rebellion began in Goma on August 2, Kabila’s dwindling forces rapidly lost control of the country until the Zimbabwean-led intervention last weekend effected a turnaround.
Kabila’s near-total dependence on outside support has focused international attention on his allies. The withdrawal of Zimbabwean troops is seen as crucial to the tentative diplomatic strategy.
Annan and Salim focused substantial efforts this week on attempts to persuade Mugabe to pull out of the conflict. Sources close to the talks said both diplomatic and economic pressure - Rwandan sources value Zimbabwean financial involvement in military and business ventures in the Congo at US$1,5-billion - were brought to bear on Mugabe’s position this week.
But events in Angola may force his hand. The MPLA government’s move to sack Unita from the Government of Popular Unity this week coincided with reports from the Institute for Security Studies that Angolan troops in the Congo had begun to turn south- west in a bid to launch a northern offensive on Unita-held territory in Angola.
Although the Congo alliance intervention is led by Zimbabwe, the Angolan intervention force, with more than 2 500 troops, together with tanks, aircraft and mercenary support, has played a far more decisive role in reversing the rebel gains.
As Angola shifts its attention toward a final assault on Unita, Zimbabwe would be forced to increase its military commitment to sustain the conflict.
Using these developments in an attempt to force an agreement on the withdrawal of Kabila’s allies from the battlefield, Annan and Salim hope to create the military opening which would enable a peacekeeping force to secure the region, while an interim political process seeks a long-term solution to the region’s interminable security crises.
The urgency of these efforts increased this week amid signs that both sides in the conflict are seeking new allies to back their military efforts.
Kabila is understood to have met Sudanese President Omar el-Beshir in Durban this week. While the outcome of this meeting is unknown, sources said a parallel effort by Rwanda and Uganda to gain the backing of Libyan President Moammar Gadaffi ended in failure.
The threat of Muslim involvement will increase the commitment of the US to broker a ceasefire. The US is a key supporter of the Annan-led strategy, and holds substantial sway with both Uganda and Rwanda.
Positive noises emerging from the crisis talks this week included upbeat comments from Mandela and Annan, as well as Mugabe’s comment on Thursday: “We are now in a position not to continue the war, but to work together in this region to establish peace.”
The gatecrashing of the NAM summit by a mysterious political group calling itself the Council of the Federal Democratic Republic of Congo demonstrated the complexity of efforts to find a political solution for the mineral-rich country.
The council’s “adviser”, Robert Stewart, worked until recently for the Canadian-based mining firm America Mineral Fields, which has disputed interests in the Congo. The council professes to represent technocrats from each of Congo’s provinces, and to have an interim political plan to restore democracy.
However, sources claimed the council is a political front for the Rwandan- led insurgency, while the council itself claimed to have the backing of the UN and OAU.