Rumors of peace in Congo

July 31, 2002

YESTERDAY'S peace deal between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda could spell an end to Africa's biggest war. But only if its guarantors -- South Africa and the United Nations -- can quickly establish an effective peacekeeping mechanism and disarm rebel groups that did not sign the pact.

That will be difficult, but not impossible. All that is required is an unwavering commitment by the various combatants to halt the bloodshed. They include not only a bewildering array of guerrilla factions but also the countries of Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe, which sent troops to help Congo, and Uganda and Burundi, which have been backing rebels.

Much depends on the resolve of the United Nations as well. Although its military observers are already stationed in Congo, the Security Council, fearful of a quagmire, has been reluctant to authorize adequate troop levels. This must change.

The roots of this four-year war go back to 1994, when Rwandan Hutu rebels involved in the genocide of up to 1 million Tutsis fled to what now is Congo. The resulting mayhem has crippled Congo, a country roughly the size of Western Europe. Two million people have died, often from starvation and disease; the country's mineral resources have been plundered.

The Congo conflict has sometimes been called Africa's world war, and, indeed, it has destabilized much of the continent. The financial and political cost of maintaining troops also has been high to many outside governments. This has been particularly true in Zimbabwe, which can ill afford this drain on its treasury and whose involvement has fanned discontent about President Robert G. Mugabe.

Early on, South Africa recognized the lunacy of an international Congo war. Although it has the continent's most powerful military machine, it refused to get dragged into the conflict. Instead, President Thabo Mbeki became a peacemaker. Yesterday's pact was the fruit of his tireless mediation efforts.

A lot is riding on the success of the peace deal. The credibility of the recently created African Union, for example, will be seriously damaged if the Congo accord does not stick.

The United States has offered up to $5 million for information on the whereabouts of Rwandan genocide perpetrators believed to be hiding in Congo. They are now said to be leaders of Hutu guerrillas.

But Washington must do more than this. It should persuade the U.N. Security Council to provide an effective peacekeeping mechanism for Congo. Otherwise, this promising breakthrough will amount to little more than rumors of peace in a badly devastated land.

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