Factions involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo's three-year-long civil war are finally sitting down at the negotiation table, raising hopes that an end to the deadly conflict, which has claimed an estimated 2.5 million lives, may be in sight.
The expected 45-day talks, dubbed the Inter-Congolese Dialogue, began yesterday at the South African resort of Sun City, outside of Johannesburg. The long-awaited talks are a key component of the peace-building process that began with a 1999 cease-fire agreement and are intended to help build the foundations of a united and peaceful Congo.
At least five other African nations and a host of rebel groups and militias are involved in the complicated Congolese war.
Neighboring Uganda and Rwanda are backing two of the main rebel groups, each of which controls about a third of the country, while Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia have sent troops to back the government. A number of armed militias, such as the Interahamwe (Hutu militants responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide who fled into the Congo), are also involved in the fighting.
Although the 1999 agreement called for the withdrawal of foreign-backed troops, only Namibia and to some extent Zimbabwe, have removed their troops.
The Sun City negotiations will include more than 300 delegates representing the government, the two main rebel factions, and various elements of civil society, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) representing women and farmers.
Key issues in the discussions are expected to be the enforcement of the 1999 cease-fire and whether the country should hold elections immediately or only after a transition period of shared power. The government wants to hold elections immediately, while outside groups would like a transitional government implemented first, maintaining that immediate elections would favor the current regime.
In the more than 40 years since it gained independence from Belgium, the Congo (formerly Zaire), has been racked by civil conflict and ruled by a series of military strongmen, who have plundered the country's mineral wealth.
The current conflict began in 1997 when Laurent-Desire Kabila, backed by Rwandan Tutsi forces, ousted long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and installed himself as president.
Kabila soon fell out with his backers, who along with Ugandan-backed forces, had armed rebel groups attempting to oust him from power.
The warring parties signed a peace agreement in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1999, but that agreement has been repeatedly violated by all sides, and Kabila was accused of blocking peace by refusing to meet with rebel groups.
Hopes for peace in the Congo were renewed when Kabila's son, Joseph, rose to power after the assassination of his father in early 2001. The younger Kabila renewed ties with Europe and with neighboring countries involved in the war and indicated a willingness to negotiate with rebel groups.
Despite initial enthusiasm for the younger Kabila, however, progress toward peace has been slow.
An earlier round of talks, held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last October, quickly fell apart after the two main rebel groups and President Joseph Kabila decided at the last minute not to attend.
One major victory for this round of talks is that the Kinshasa-based government and both major rebel factions - the Ugandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), which controls the eastern part of the country, and the Rwandan-based Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) which controls the north - have arrived at the talks. MLC leader Jean-Pierre Bemba had announced last week that he would not attend, citing concerns about the composition of the delegations, but he eventually made a last-minute appearance.
Late arrivals and leventh-hour wrangling delayed the start of the talks. One of the MLCs main sticking points, which nearly kept them from coming here, was the question of the independence of some civilian groups that the MLC considered pro-Kabila.
South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki expressed confidence that the delegates would come to an agreement and "not fail the children of Congo."