Regional African leaders signed a deal on Sunday aimed at bringing peace and stability to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with plans to reinforce a UN-led mission to combat rebels after years of unrest.
Eleven countries in the Great Lakes region -- including those accused of stoking trouble by backing rebel groups -- signed on to the accord at a ceremony in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in the presence of UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
"It is my hope that the framework will lead to an era of peace and stability for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region," Ban said, but added: "It is only the beginning of a comprehensive approach that will require sustained engagement."
The accord aims to encourage the reform of weak institutions in the DRC, central Africa's largest country, and calls for regional countries to refrain from interfering in each other's affairs.
In a statement released after the signing, US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice warned that it was "imperative that the DRC's neighbours respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity by preventing external support to armed groups, which is a violation of international obligations".
The accord also provides for the "strategic revision" of the UN's 17,000-man strong MONUSCO mission, which may lead to creation of a special UN "intervention brigade" to combat rebel groups and support political reforms, and the appointment of a UN special envoy.
South African President Jacob Zuma described the creation of the brigade, which will total 2,500 troops, as a realistic way to quickly restore security.
DR Congo's mineral-rich east has been ravaged by conflict involving numerous armed groups for the past two decades, with new rebel movements spawned on a regular basis.
The latest surge in violence erupted last year and culminated in the rebel March 23 movement (M23) -- made up of largely Tutsi former soldiers -- briefly seizing the key town of Goma last November.
The presidents of the DR Congo, South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania were present for the signing, along with envoys from Uganda, Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Zambia.
"It shows that the right course of action is still being taken and that based on this there are opportunities and avenues which will be open for our common action for the peace and security of DRC and in the region," the African Union's commissioner for peace and security Ramtane Lamamra said.
Former colonial power Belgium welcomed the deal, with Foreign Minister Didier Reynders calling it "an excellent working basis to relaunch the joint efforts of the DRC, the region and the international community towards a long-term solution to the crisis in the Congolese east".
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country is accused of backing the M23 rebels, also praised the accord.
"Today's agreement is an important step and opportunity in reaffirming our commitment to regional peace," he said. "Nothing would be of greater benefit to Rwanda than real progress towards regional peace and stability."
Neighbouring states have regularly been accused of meddling in the eastern DRC region, with the illegal extraction of its valuable minerals as one of their motivations.
The European Union welcomed the deal, expressing support for a stronger UN presence in a country almost the size of Western Europe.
"We believe this is an opportunity for a new start for the region and its peoples who have suffered too much. We call on all leaders' strong and genuine commitment to implement. The EU stands ready to do its part," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the bloc's commissioner for development Andris Piebalgs said in a statement.
A first attempt to get the peace agreement signed last month on the sidelines of the African Union summit was called off at the last minute.
The DR Congo is the biggest and most populous country in central Africa and has enormous but largely untapped potential mineral wealth including copper, oil, diamonds, gold, silver, zinc and uranium.