ENTEBBE, Uganda (AP) — An expected peace deal between Congo's government and M23 rebels was postponed after Congolese officials asked for more time to study the document, a Ugandan government spokesman said Monday, the day Western diplomats and Ugandan officials believed a final accord would be signed after nearly a year of negotiations.
The Congolese government delegation was not ready to agree to the document, according to Ugandan government spokesman Ofwono Opondo, who said the accord would have to wait until Congo's government "makes up its mind." Opondo said the Congolese government had asked for more time to review the document despite having a copy for at least three days. Congolese officials did not issue a comment about the situation.
Okello Oryem, Uganda's deputy foreign minister, told The Associated Press the deal had not been signed after Congo's government insisted on saying it would sign a "declaration" that the rebellion was over, but not "an agreement" with the M23 rebels, an issue that he said reflected the difficulty of mediating peace between the two sides. Peace talks between M23 and Congo's government have repeatedly stalled since they started in December, sometimes over minor details, according to Ugandan officials.
It remained unclear when the two parties would meet again.
The top international envoys to the region issued a joint statement expressing regret that an agreement couldn't be concluded Monday.
U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Mary Robinson, U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes and Congo Russ Feingold, African Union Special Representative Boubacar Diarra, European Union Senior Coordinator for the Great Lakes Koen Vervaeke, and U.N. Special Representative in Congo Martin Kobler noted that the parties have expressed no differences on substantive points within the draft document.
But the envoys said "agreement on the format has not yet been reached." They urged the parties "to resolve the differences relating to the format of the document," to remain committed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict and to ensure that those who have committed war crimes, crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity will be held accountable.
The Congolese army in recent weeks pushed the M23 rebels out of eastern Congo, and last week the rebels declared an end to their rebellion. The peace agreement was intended to establish the way that both sides would sustain peace in eastern Congo.
Dignitaries and journalists had gathered at the official residence of Uganda's president in the Ugandan town of Entebbe to witness the official signing ceremony. But the 6 p.m. time for the ceremony came and went with no signing. Some ceremony participants suggested that the issue of amnesty for the rebel soldiers could hold up the deal. The Congolese government delegation was led by Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda while Bertrand Bisimwa, M23's civilian head, led the rebel delegation.
It appears Uganda's government has been seeking to get compromises from Congo's government on amnesty for rebel commanders who are accused of committing serious abuses during the 19 month rebellion. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has criticized Congo's government for maintaining what he called a "Eurocentric" foreign policy that he said was indifferent to the interests of regional neighbors such as Rwanda and Uganda, countries accused of supporting the M23 rebels. Both countries, whose militaries in the past have invaded eastern Congo to fight rebel groups operating there, deny the allegations despite evidence given by United Nations experts.
Feingold called the pending accord between Congo's government and the M23 movement a "modest" but crucial first step toward solving what he called eastern Congo's "foundational issues." The deal would create "positive momentum" for regional leaders to seek a negotiated end to persistent violence in eastern Congo, said Feingold.
Feingold said the proposed deal between the M23 and Congo's government offered no blanket amnesty for the rebels nor did it contain their automatic reintegration into the Congolese army, the Congolese government position that he said dovetailed with the views of the U.S. government. He said amnesty should be granted on a case-by-case basis.
"We believe the agreement will reflect the desire not to make those mistakes again," he said, talking about a previous agreement in which Congo's government gave blanket amnesty to a rebel group that was M23's precursor.
Hundreds of M23 rebels fled to Uganda after they were defeated by Congolese government troops in recent fighting in eastern Congo.
Uganda is holding M23's top commander, Makenga, who last week surrendered to Ugandan border officials amid a heightened offensive by Congolese government troops on rebel positions in eastern Congo. He crossed the border with more than 1,500 of his fighters, said Ugandan military spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda.
The amnesty issue is believed to have been one of the reasons for the repeated postponement of the signing of the peace agreement, and Ugandan officials haven't said what they will do with Makenga, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. and the U.N. for serious crimes including rape and the use of child soldiers in his rebellion.