Defence ministers sitting on a seven-member committee set up last week by a regional Heads of State and Government Summit are set to embark on their assignment today when they meet to try and find a lasting solution to the skirmishes in the Congo.
The talks will take place in Goma, the capital of DRC's North Kivu province, where government troops, backed by a 20,000-strong UN force, have battled M23 rebels since April.
Rwandan Defence minister James Kabarebe is expected to attend the meeting, according to Defence and Military Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita. The meeting was preceded by the one for Defence and Intelligence experts, from August 12-14, and that of Chiefs of Defence Forces and Intelligence Chiefs from Burundi, Republic of Congo, DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda (yesterday), he added.
"Deliberations are ongoing, with the intention of developing recommendations for the Heads of State in a Summit due in September," Nzabamwita said.
By press time it was not clear whether Angola's Defence minister would attend today's meeting. The New Times could not get a comment from the Bujumbura-based ICGLR Secretariat.
The ministers will build on the outcomes from the preparatory sessions - also held in Goma - in a bid to meet a two-week deadline in which they are expected to submit an interim report. The defence ministers are expected to discuss and agree on the modalities revolving around the creation and deployment of a neutral international force to help pacify eastern Congo.
The ministerial committee is composed of defence ministers from Angola, Burundi, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda (chair) and Tanzania, all of which are members of the eleven-member International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
The committee was established during an extraordinary ICGLR Heads of State and Government Summit, held in the Ugandan capital, Kampala on August 7-8, and mandated to "propose urgent actionable steps to ensure that fighting stops completely to allow for consolidation of peace, security and stability; and to provide details on the operationalisation of the neutral International Force". Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is the current chair of ICGLR, which also includes the Central African Republic, Kenya, Sudan and Zambia.
M23 rebels, largely composed of the former CNDP and PARECO fighters, abandoned their posts to launch the new rebellion, accusing Kinshasa of rescinding from a 2009 peace deal under which the rebels had been integrated into the national army.
The rebels' initial strength was estimated at around 300, but have since grown in numbers thanks to continued defections from the army. They have not carried out major offensives in recent weeks but have instead called for talks with Kinshasa, claiming they have legitimate grievances that need urgent solutions, but the latter has turned down negotiations.
President Joseph Kabila's government has accused Kigali of backing the rebels, and has launched a nationwide recruitment drive to bolster its military, which has lost considerable territory to the rebels despite aerial and ground support from the United Nations Mission in Congo (Monusco), which runs an annual budget of more than $1.3 billion.
Rwanda has denied the allegations, saying it had nothing to gain from the conflict considering that bilateral ties between both countries had improved drastically since 2009, highlighted by joint military operations, visits by both presidents to each other, among others.
By press time there were no details about the meeting of the military and intelligence chiefs and whether a deal had been reached.
The African Union has pledged to contribute troops for the proposed neutral force to help return eastern Congo to normalcy after years of hostilities, a move analysts say is a direct indictment for Monusco, which has been in the area for 13 years with little to show for its presence.
It is hoped the proposed neutral force would help flush out all rebels operating in eastern DRC, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) composed of elements blamed for the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
However, senior Congolese officials have said they preferred Monusco to do the job as opposed to a new force even as the government has twice endorsed the "neutral force" proposal - first in Addis Ababa during an ICGLR meeting and then in Kampala.