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A new cause for Congo rebels?

With preliminary peace talks set for July, Congolese Rally for Democracy says it's weary of war.

By Danna Harman Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 24, 2001



GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

Mobutu Sese Seko's old summer palace in the lakeside town of Goma has seen better days. The gold-rimmed wallpaper in the foyer is peeling, the glass grape clusters adorning the desk lamps are chipped, and there is no water to fill the blue marble jacuzzi in the mirrored bathroom suite.

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Rwanda-backed rebels, who took over this town almost three years ago, have turned the palace into their headquarters, pasting paper signs on the heavy wood-paneled doors ("President" reads one hand-written scrap, "Chief of Staff"announces another, hanging lopsided by a piece of Scotch tape) and holding strategy meetings on the vast, unmowed lawns.

It is here that these rebels - the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD)- monitors the progress of its troop disengagements and the slowly advancing peace process. The RCD is among two main rebel groups and six nations fighting in this swath of central Africa.

Peace on the horizon?

On Tuesday, Congo's feuding groups agreed to meet in July to discuss a timetable for talks about democratic rule. A UN Security Council delegation is traveling through the region this week, trying to revive the 1999 Lusaka peace accord. A key element in the accord is a dialogue involving rebel groups, opposition parties, civil groups, and the government.

During a recent interview, RCD leaders wondered about their personal futures, spouted ideology, and tried to articulate the significance and the necessity of the bloody years of revolution.

President Joseph Kabila's ascent to power in the Congo three months ago - and his willingness to go forward with the peace process his father had all but shunned - has put the onus on these and other rebels who long claimed there was no one to talk to in Kinshasa.

"The excuse for this war evaporated overnight with Laurent Kabila's assassination," says one Western diplomat. "Laurent was the 'no' man. Joseph is the 'yes' man, and as such the new darling of the international community. The rebels are stuck looking like the power-hungry spoilers they have been all along."

But RCD Secretary General Azarias Ruberwa defends his movement's three years of warfare against the government in Kinshasa, saying: "Revolution was the only way to bring about change. We could not have reached this stage without it."

A thin, mild-mannered lawyer, Mr. Ruberwa is said to be the strong man in the triumvirate rebel leadership. "I am not a soldier. I am a diplomat and a thinker," says Ruberwa, "but I know that those who went about their protest without violence have been taken out of the picture."

You cannot negotiate with a dictator, says Ruberwa, referring to the now-deceased Laurent Kabila. "They needed pressure. They needed an ultimatum."

The rebel leader claims that the RCD troops - which he says number more than 40,000, but which are generally believed to be somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 - are still in their "defensive positions," ready to fight "to the last man" if the process falls apart.

"We want peace," explains the youthful Chief of Staff Sylvain Buki, "but we cannot give it away just like that"