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A step in the right direction for eastern Congo?

Analysis: Arrest of one rebel leader shows a re-alignment of forces in the troubled region.

Congolese government soldiers sit in the rain at the front line near Kibati, north of Goma in eastern Congo. In a surprising development, the rebel forces loyal to Laurent Nkunda are now joining forces with the Congolese army. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

There is rarely any real prospect for lasting peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than a decade of violence and upheaval churns steadily, ever onwards, with a death toll estimated at five million and still counting.

But a handful of extraordinary developments over the past two weeks may offer the best prospects for peace in a long time.

The main rebel group that threatened to plunge the country back into full-scale regional war late in 2008 has split ranks. The Tutsi rebels' military chief Bosco Ntaganda defected from overall rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and announced he was joining up with the rebels' sworn enemy, the Congolese government army.

In an even more surprising twist, Nkunda was then arrested by Tutsi-led Rwanda. Rwanda has long been accused of backing Nkunda’s forces as a buffer against the Hutu extremists still lurking in Congo’s eastern wilds since fleeing there following the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It seems unlikely Rwanda will meet Congo’s demands to hand over Nkunda for trial. Nkunda knows too much about Rwanda’s controversial involvement in Congo, where the UN accuses Rwanda of illegal looting and pillaging for years.

(Watch the author's audio slideshow on Congo.)

The ethnic rivalries and vast natural resources of Congo’s east have kept the region locked in conflict for years.

The root of the problem has been the presence of those Hutu extremists, known as the F.D.L.R., roaming the bush and providing Rwanda with a convenient excuse for meddling across the border.

But now Ntaganda — known as the Terminator for his ruthlessness — has joined up with Congo’s army to hunt down the F.D.L.R.

Congo has even invited Rwandan forces to join the hunt and more than 3,000 Rwandan troops are now in eastern Congo, a bizarre union given the long, tortured history between the two nations. Most Congolese regard Rwanda — which has twice invaded Congo — as the mortal enemy, the aggressive exploiters blamed for many of Congo’s problems.

Promises of action against the F.D.L.R. are not new, but this time it seems joint combat operations are under way.

The big fear now is that civilians will be caught up in the fighting or targeted for ethnic reasons. As an African proverb says, “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” Things could still get worse before they get any better.

A similar joint attempt between Congolese and Ugandan troops to hunt down Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels also terrorizing eastern Congo has led to the slaughter of more than 600 civilians during the past month in reprisal killings by the L.R.A. Only a handful of low-level L.R.A. fighters have been caught.

But there are other positive signs in a country where lawlessness reigns and armed factions rule.

The first-ever war crimes trial started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week in which Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga faces war crimes charges. He is accused of recruiting and training hundreds of children to kill, rape and pillage in 2002 and 2003.

Also, at a hearing this month to decide whether he will face trial, ICC prosecutors accused former Congolese rebel warlord and ex-vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba of ordering mass rape to terrorize civilians.

This, along with the ICC chief prosecutor’s request for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on genocide charges stemming from Darfur, suggests that pressure may slowly be building on those who commit crimes against humanity in Africa’s distant wilds.

There’s still a long way to go — Ntaganda is also wanted by the ICC for war crimes — but if the ICC can show it has teeth, warlords and strongmen may think twice about whether they are above the law.

The danger though is that the ICC warrants may also stall attempts at peace. Sudan has become more belligerent since the ICC went after al-Bashir and efforts to end the L.R.A.’s two decades of brutality have been hampered by demands for the trial on war crimes of its leader, the mystical Joseph Kony.

There may have been some steps forward, but there appear to be many more obstacles before a lasting peace can be achieved in eastern Congo.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/090127/step-the-right-direction-eastern-congo