African nations have agreed to suspend military operations for six months against Congo-based Rwandan rebels in order to give them more time to lay down their arms, regional government officials said.
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels, composed in part of former soldiers and Hutu militia responsible for killing some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, announced in April that they would disarm. Some fighters began doing so in May.
Disarmament would improve the prospects for stability in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where millions have been killed in nearly two decades of conflict that have sucked in an array of armed factions and national armies. Congo is a major producer of diamonds and metals, including copper and gold.
The suspension was announced after a meeting in Angola on Wednesday of foreign ministers from a regional bloc including Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, DRC, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.
"The results of this surrender (of FDLR arms) are not sufficient...but still the member states deemed that as acceptable," Angola's Foreign Minister Georges Chikoti told national news agency Angop. He said the FDLR's progress towards disarming would be reviewed after three months.
The FDLR and previous incarnations of the group have operated in Congo's eastern borderlands since they fled Rwanda following the genocide. They are regularly accused of human rights abuses, including civilian massacres.
PRETEXT FOR INTERVENTION
Their presence along the border has also served as a pretext for Rwandan military interventions in Congo, helping fuel conflict there since the mid-1990s.
Last year, bolstered by a special brigade with a robust mandate to carry out offensive operations, Congo's UN mission, MONUSCO, launched a military campaign against the remaining armed groups operating in the mineral-rich east.
The mission was not immediately available to comment on whether it would also suspend operations against the FDLR.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said the country's army would honour the suspension of operations, but it would be ready to act if the FDLR did not live up to its pledges.
"Of course there will be no military operations during the six-month period," he said. "The military option remains on the table if the FDLR does not show concrete signs of their disarmament within a reasonable period."
Over 25,000 FDLR fighters have demobilised since 2002, but those numbers have slowed to a trickle in recent years. The estimated 2,000 remaining rebels have hidden among communities in Congo's dense forests.