Rebels from Democratic Republic of Congo opened talks Sunday with Kinshasa's government aimed at ending a crisis that has led to widespread atrocities and sparked fears of an all-out regional conflict.
"Today marks the beginning of the dialogue between the government of Democratic Republic of Congo and the M23" rebels, said Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga in his opening statement.
The talks, which have opened in the Ugandan capital, will alternate between Kampala and the flashpoint eastern DR Congo city of Goma, he added.
The rebels' lightening capture of the mining hub of Goma on November 20, eight months after the army mutineers launched an uprising against the government, had raised fears of a wider war and a major humanitarian crisis.
M23 fighters, largely from the ethnic Tutsi community, pulled out of Goma last weekend. They are expected to present a raft of demands to the government, including a call for major political reform for the war-weary region.
"The dialogue that is starting today gives hope to the people of the DRC, the people in the region and the international community," Kiyonga said, who is helping mediate the talks.
"There is now a great opportunity to find a sustainable political solution to the conflict between the government of DRC and the M23."
Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda is leading Kinshasa's delegation and he is accompanied by members of the national assembly and the senate.
M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga is not part of the rebel delegation, but he is believed to be committed to the process.
DR Congo's four main opposition groups in Kinshasa's national assembly have declined to join the talks because the government has refused to discuss any demands except those made by the M23 rebels.
The opposition, who objected to only being given observer status at the negotiations, said that only "inclusive dialogue" between the majority in power, opposition, civil society groups and M23 rebels would provide an effective solution.
The talks are the latest in several bids to end a crisis in the chronically volatile region that has forced thousands to flee their homes.
Eastern DR Congo, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, was the cradle of back-to-back wars that drew in much of the region from 1996 to 2003. They were fought largely over its vast wealth of copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key mobile phone component.
Both rebels and government troops have raped and killed civilians and looted towns during recent battles, U.N. investigators said Friday. They also said the M23 had recruited at least 300 child soldiers.
The meeting began a day after southern African nations proposed to deploy a neutral force to rein in the multiple militia forces in the region, including the M23 fighters, Rwandan Hutu insurgents and other armed groups.
Tanzania, which hosted the summit meeting of the 15-nation member Southern African Development Community (SADC), agreed to lead the force, with troops ready to deploy by December 14, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said.
The regional bloc also called for the mandate of the existing United Nations peacekeeping force in DR Congo to be strengthened to allow them greater freedom to battle militia forces.
The instability in eastern DR Congo was exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power.
Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of backing the fighters, with a U.N. report quoting sources that more than 1,000 Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebels, while Kampala provided logistical support.
Kigali and Kampala have strongly denied involvement in the conflict.
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