An emergency summit meeting on the crisis in eastern Congo began here Friday as the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, held talks with seven African presidents in an attempt to shore up a tenuous, rebel-declared cease-fire that seemed close to unraveling.
Over the past two weeks, hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by intense fighting between rebels and government forces, threatening to plunge a broader swath of central Africa back into war.
As the summit meeting got under way in Nairobi, Congolese soldiers and rebel forces exchanged fire near Goma, a provincial capital almost seized by rebel forces last week. U.N. officials described the most recent episode as an “accident” and by Friday night, the shooting had stopped.
Ban said a political solution – not a military one – is the only way to end the violence, and he urged presidents of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville to work together to enforce treaties that have been signed. Congo and Rwanda have blamed each other for secretly fueling the bloodshed.
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Joseph Kabila, the Congolese leader, and Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, were both at the meeting on Friday, but it was not clear whether they were engaged in discussion.
Over the past decade, Congo's wars have killed up to 5million people, mostly from hunger and disease. The instability – along with Congo's vast mineral riches – has frequently drawn in neighboring armies.
“This has been one of the worst human tragedies of our time,” Ban told the African leaders.
The talks took place under tight security at a hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya's capital. The police shut down many of the roads leading to the hotel and soldiers were positioned at strategic points throughout Nairobi.
The meeting will most likely just scratch the surface of the deep and tangled issues haunting Congo, where state institutions, particularly the military, are weak and disorganized.
U.N. peacekeeping troops in Congo have not proved very effective, either. One question Ban is sure to face at the summit is why peacekeepers have not done more to protect civilians.
The United Nations has 17,000 peacekeepers in Congo, its biggest peacekeeping mission. Ban said the U.N.'s “capacity is stretched to the limit.”
Alan Doss, the head of the U.N. mission in Congo, told reporters Friday: “We've asked for more battalions” and said they were needed “as soon as possible.”
Many civilians have been killed by rebel and government forces, and the list of atrocities is piling up. On Thursday, human rights groups accused rebel forces of war crimes after more than a dozen bodies were found in a village that the rebels captured earlier this week.
The accusation was the latest in a catalogue of alleged crimes in recent years.
Earlier this year, Congo's top opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was jailed in The Hague to answer allegations before a war crimes tribunal that his soldiers went on a killing and raping spree in the Central African Republic.
Bemba's predicament has created an opportunity for Laurent Nkunda, leader of the rebel forces in eastern Congo who have been fighting the government these past weeks, to emerge as a national opposition figure.
Western diplomats and academics have said Nkunda may be trying to stir up a nationwide rebellion against Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, who is increasingly unpopular and has done little to secure the country.
Nkunda was not at the talks on Friday. When asked why, Doss, the U.N. official, said: “It wasn't up to us who to invite.”