CONTINUED fighting is frustrating talks to end the civil war in the tiny central African nation of Rwanda, where, in contrast to a global trend of secessionist struggles, rebels say they are battling to overcome the nation's ethnic differences.
After two and a half years of a war that has rarely caught the world's attention, increased diplomatic pressure could throw an international spotlight on one of the continent's least-known conflicts. France is urging United Nations involvement in Rwanda. And both sides of the conflict are pressuring the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to increase its role in peace talks.
Negotiations aimed at ending the war started just weeks after the conflict began in late 1990, when exiled members of the Tutsi minority invaded from Uganda. The rebels demand an end to ethnic strife, the right of refugees to return to Rwanda, and an end to what they call the dictatorial powers of the Hutu-dominated government of President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Although cease-fire agreements have come and gone, peace talks have made significant progress on most topics, including provisions for power sharing by all groups through a period of transitional government leading to democratic elections. Disagreements still exist on how long the transitional government should last and how to integrate the rebel and government armies.
The OAU has maintained a group of 50 neutral military observers to monitor compliance with cease-fire terms since the middle of last year. France, which along with Belgium sent troops after fighting began in October 1990, maintains about 600 troops in the capital, Kigali. The Belgian troops were withdrawn in November 1990.
Rebels contend that the presence of French troops in Kigali frees Rwandan troops for duty on the front line and makes the government intransigent at the peace talks.
Rwanda is about the size of West Virginia. With around 7.5 million people, it is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa.
The rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) controls a swath of land that runs across the north of the country. There the fertile terraced hills lie idle and the tea plantations stand unattended. With the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town, the rebel area is a symbol of the decline of the agricultural sector that once served as the major source of foreign currency earnings for Rwanda.
The war's front line is a string of trenches running along the tops of wooded hills. From the RPF positions rebels can see government trenches on the next hilltop. Not far from the front line, Paul Kagame, the gaunt military leader of the RPF, surveys a luxuriant valley through a sudden tropical downpour. He says he is fighting for democratic reforms.
"What we need to do in Rwanda at the moment is cripple the means the government has to maintain a dictatorship in the country, and that is the military power it has at its disposal," he says. "Once you attain that, then reforms can follow."
Rwanda became a one-party state at independence in 1962. Only in November 1990 did President Habyarimana, who has run the country since a bloodless coup in 1973, agree to hold multiparty elections in 1991.
The government has earned low marks from international human rights organizations. On March 8, four international human rights groups released a 100-page report implicating the Kigali government in many of the 2,000 civilian deaths since 1990. The RPF also was criticized for "very serious excesses with regard to the civilian populations."
Although the promised elections were never held, the government says it has started the process of democratization and is prepared to clear the way for refugees to return, but not en masse.
Rwanda's refugee problem began in 1959 when ethnic divisions, exacerbated by colonial rule, degenerated into violence. The majority Hutus, who make up more than 80 percent of the population, took power and turned on their former rulers, the Tutsis. In the years that followed, tens of thousands of Tutsis were killed and 150,000 fled the country. In October 1990, about 7,000 fighters of the newly formed RPF invaded their former homeland.
Mr. Kagame claims the RPF has overcome historical divisions by ethnically integrating their troops. RPF spokesman Shaban Ruta, wearing oversized French combat fatigues that he says were stolen from government forces, says the rebels are increasingly getting support from all ethnic groups in Rwanda. The ethnic differences that have divided the country in the past have been overstated by the Hutu-dominated government "to keep themselves in power," he says.
But Rwanda's ambassador to Uganda, Claver Kanyarushoki, who also is a negotiator at the talks, refutes rebels' claims of ethnic diversity.
"It is wishful thinking of the RPF," Mr. Kanyarushoki says. "You can't deny that there are ethnic groups. You can't deny that history has made those ethnic groups to be opposed, and to have some animosity and a lot of grudges to settle and so on."
In recent months, ethnic tensions have stalled the peace talks. Ethnic clashes broke out again in January, resulting in the killing of nearly 400 Tutsis. In response, the rebels launched a short offensive that nearly doubled the area they control.
In spite of the fighting, the two sides met last week to discuss restarting the peace talks, which are now scheduled to resume March 15. Tanzanian officials who hosted the meeting warned the government and rebels that after painstaking peace negotiations, ordinary Rwandans would feel cheated if the two sides now returned to full-scale war.