Peace in the heart of Africa?

A pact in Congo this week may end a horrific conflict if the US and others follow through.

One of the most lawless places on Earth is eastern Congo. It's also one of its most tragic – in Holocaust proportions. More than 5 million people have died there as a result of a decade-long conflict. This week, though, this little-noticed tragedy of horrors saw a hopeful turn of events.

A peace agreement was finalized Wednesday between the Democratic Republic of Congo and various rebel groups. The pact now needs money and delicate diplomacy to succeed, with the European Union already promising $150 million.

The United States needs to do more, and perhaps the Pentagon's new focus on the continent, with the setting up of an Africa Command, can help bring American "soft power" to the deal.

The lure of aid helped bring the factions to the table, along with a defeat in battle for Congo's military in December. Money will also be needed to disarm the more than two dozen militias and end a war of killing, plunder, and rape that has caused the deaths of an estimated 45,000 people each month – half of them small children.

Like the tragedy in Sudan's Darfur, the Congo conflict has long befuddled the outside world. It began in the mid-1990s after the genocide in nearby Rwanda that saw an estimated 800,000 killed. Fleeing Hutu rebels, who had tried to wipe out Rwanda's minority Tutsis, set up camp in eastern Congo, upsetting the tribal balance and uniting Congo's Tutsis under a rebel general named Laurent Nkunda.

It also ignited a war that helped bring the armies of other African nations into Congo. The heart of Africa – Congo is four times the size of France – was set aflame, despite the country's attempt to right itself after decades of dictatorship.

Piece by piece, though, diplomats have built a foundation for peace. The alternative was too difficult to accept: In most of Africa's wars, indirect deaths as a result of lawlessness and neglect are estimated to be 14 times greater than deaths from actual combat.

The West has another incentive for peacemaking: Since the end of the cold war nearly two decades ago, conflicts in Africa have cost the continent as much money as all the foreign aid it received, according to Oxfam.

Despite the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, eastern Congo has remained in conflict. One key to this week's agreement is a pact signed last year between Congo and Rwanda that calls for repatriating Rwanda's Hutu militias. Only as that happens will General Nkunda and his Congolese Tutsi forces disarm and join Congo's national army.

Diplomats need all the help they can get to pull that off. Such foreign efforts have had a mixed record, going back to 1960 when the UN sent its first peacekeepers to Africa (to head off a rebellion in Congo's Katanga Province). For many conflicts, such as in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, outside intervention worked. But lack of intervention in Rwanda's 1994 genocide has compelled a long-lasting urgency to address Africa's violent trouble spots.

One underlying cause of many African conflicts, especially in Congo, is the lure of abundant minerals. Peace will not be assured unless resource-rich nations have an equitable means of tapping that wealth without outside pressures.

Congo's peace deal is starting down that path.

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