East African regional leaders demand ceasefire in eastern Congo

FILE PHOTO: Congolese victims of ethnic violence rest inside a ward at the General Hospital in Bunia, Ituri province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

BUJUMBURA (Reuters) -East African regional leaders on Saturday renewed their call for an immediate ceasefire by all sides in the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that pits the country's military against a rebel group it has accused Rwanda of supporting.

At a summit in Burundi's capital Bujumbura, the leaders of the regional East African Community (EAC) bloc called for an "immediate ceasefire by all parties," according to a communique issued at the end of the meeting.

The M23 rebel group has seized large areas of eastern Congo's North Kivu province in a rapid onslaught since Oct. 20 that has threatened the provincial capital, Goma.

The conflict has inflamed regional tensions with Congo accusing neighbour Rwanda of backing and sponsoring the Tutsi-led rebellion. United Nations experts and Western powers have also accused Rwanda of backing the M23, although Rwanda has denied any involvement.

Saturday's meeting was the latest diplomatic effort to try to end the insurgency, which has displaced at least 520,000 people since March 2022 in North Kivu, a territory long plagued by conflict.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis visited Congo and called for an end to violence.

Regional leaders had brokered an agreement in November under which the rebels were meant to cease fire and withdraw from recently seized positions by Jan. 15, but that did not happen.

A U.N. internal report said the rebels were flouting the ceasefire and withdrawal terms.

Saturday's summit was attended by heads of state from Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi and senior officials from the region.

They also demanded the withdrawal of all foreign and armed groups from Congo and asked regional military chiefs to meet within one week and set a timeframe for the withdrawal.

"The summit reiterated its call to all parties to de-escalate tensions," the communique read.

At the summit Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi warned the commander of an East African regional military force deployed in eastern Congo, Jeff Nyagah, a Kenyan, against showing bias toward the rebels.

"Do not favor the M23. It would be a shame for the population to turn on you," Tshisekedi is seen telling Nyagah in a video tweeted by his spokeswoman, Tina Salama.

"You came to help us and not to have problems. Pay attention to that. Communicate with the population," Tshisekedi said.

Kenyan President William Ruto was visible standing nearby as Tshisekedi warned the commander. The EAC agreed on a regional force in April last year to be deployed in eastern Congo to help end decades of bloodshed in the area.

On Jan. 27, M23 rebels took control of the town of Kitshanga in Masisi territory and control of a new road, further isolating the provincial capital Goma.

(Additional reporting by Sonia Rolley; Writing by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by Mark Potter and Toby Chopra)

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