KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — The Congolese government and a rebel group that is ensconced in the hills above one of the country's largest cities have made progress in talks organized by neighboring nations, according to a statement issued Tuesday.
"Significant progress has been made in the dialogue," said the statement from the Office of the Facilitator of the International Conference of the Great Lakes, which is hosting the mediation effort in the capital of neighboring Uganda.
Late last month, Congolese troops exchanged heavy fire with the M23 rebels, who occupy positions just outside the strategic eastern city of Goma. Aided by U.N. forces who pounded rebel positions with combat helicopters the Congolese were able to reclaim several areas that had been occupied by the M23, until the rebels unexpectedly declared a cease-fire, saying they wanted to resume talks.
The M23 is primarily made up of fighters from a now-defunct rebel group which signed a peace agreement with Congo on March 23, 2009. The deal paved the way for the rebels to join the regular Congolese military. For the next three years Congo enjoyed a relative period of calm in its troubled and lawless eastern province.
However many defected in 2012, claiming Congo had not held up its end of the bargain by failing to implement the signed agreement. Rebels invaded and briefly held Goma, one of Congo's largest cities late last year, before retreating to positions just outside the city.
The international community, bolstered by several reports by the U.N. Group of Experts, has accused Rwanda of backing the M23, using it as a proxy force to secure access to eastern Congo's lucrative mining trade.
Tuesday's statement from the office of the facilitator in Kampala says the two sides agreed that 65 percent of the provisions in the 2009 accord have been implemented, while 35 percent have not. "The parties have expressed determination to ensure that the balance of the agreement will be implemented as well," it said.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the statement is further proof that the M23's rationale for war is unfounded.
"First of all, this confirms what the government has always said — that the non-execution of the March 23, 2009, accord is not the real reason for the war that was imposed on us because the majority of the measures were already implemented. This war comes from elsewhere," he said. "The Congolese government is thinking of Rwanda, which does not want to respect the promises it has made."
Showing the extent of international concern, the talks were attended by the presidents of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania, as well as by the U.N. special envoy to the region, and Sen. Russ Feingold, the special envoy from the United States.
In recent days as fighting between the M23 and Congo escalated, a convoy of military vehicles was seen leaving the Rwanda capital for the Congolese border, heightening fears the two nations, which have gone to war twice before, might be heading for another confrontation.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi