African heads meet to discuss DRC crisis


South Africa President Jacob Zuma gives a press conference on July 29, 2013 at the Unions Building in Pretoria.

PRETORIA - African leaders went into talks on Monday to discuss the possibility of reinforcing a UN special brigade deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as rebels there are forced onto the back foot.

South African President Jacob Zuma opened the talks urging his fellow leaders "to continue to do everything we can to act together in partnership, to respond to the urgent challenges of restoring peace and stability".

Zuma is hosting leaders from some of the 15-country Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and some of DR Congo&39;s neighbours at the summit in Pretoria.

The 3,000-strong UN intervention brigade in eastern DR Congo is drawn from Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania. It joined 17,000 peacekeepers already deployed in the country, but it carries a special mission to help Congo&39;s army quell the rebellions in the region.

On Monday, the brigade carried out what is believed to be its first direct combat against M23 rebels since the Congolese army began a major assault against the rebellion late October and seized control of all of the M23 strongholds.

The army is now pursuing die-hard rebels holed up in the lush, hilly region bordering Uganda.

"Important initiatives are being undertaken... and buttressed by the United Nations framework for peace and security in the DRC and the Great Lakes to reach a political resolution to the fundamental causes of instability in the region," said Zuma in his opening remarks.

"Additionally the UN intervention brigade has now been fully deployed with the mandate to restore stability to the east of the DRC."

Presidents from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe are among those at the Pretoria meeting.

The African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, said the summit is "trying to write a new page in the tragic history of this region."

SADC chairwoman and Malawi&39;s President Joyce Banda meanwhile urged the DR Congo government to consider returning to negotiations with the rebels "for the sake of peace in the DRC" as "military intervention alone is not enough."

Analysts say Monday&39;s meeting is aimed at mapping out ways to completely drive out the M23 rebels.

"The meeting is a final coordinating meeting between SADC and Great Lakes countries," said Martin Rupiya, executive director of the Pretoria-based African Public Policy and Research Institute.

"They think M23 is on the rocks," said Rupiya, adding that "the main agenda is to finish off" the rebels.

The United Nations regularly accuses neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda of covertly supporting the rebels, a claim they deny.

Rwandan leader Paul Kagame skipped Monday&39;s summit, but Uganda&39;s Yoweri Museveni was present and said the latest outbreak of fighting was unexpected.

"The recent fighting took me by surprise," he said.

On Tuesday, South Africa is hosting a separate summit to talk about the formation of an African stand-by force to be deployed during crises.