The peace agreement was signed in the eastern town of Goma by Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, President Joseph Kabila’s government and several militias from Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces.
A survey published by the International Rescue Committee said Congo’s war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, the highest toll in any conflict since World War II. And the aid group said 45,000 Congolese were dying each month, mostly from conflict-related disease and hunger, Reuters reported.
The country has been embroiled in social and political turmoil since it gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Recent months of conflict between government forces and rebel factions have driven nearly 500,000 people from their homes, the BBC reported.
International observers welcomed the deal as a chance for peace in Congo, but they warned that implementation could be difficult following other failed cease-fires in the east.
The peace deal was the result of two weeks of intense negotiations between the warring groups in Congo’s eastern borderlands. The United Nations and Western governments had been pressing Kabila, Nkunda and eastern armed faction leaders to come to a peace accord.
It established an immediate cease-fire and the creation in five days of a buffer zone to be patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers in North Kivu province, where heavy fighting had occurred between Nkunda’s rebels and government forces.
“The signing of this document means the disengagement of all 25 armed groups in North and South Kivu,” said Tim Shortley, a senior U.S. State Department envoy, quoted Reuters.
Implementation also may depend on efforts to rid east Congo of Nkunda’s traditional foes, Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, who were not invited to the peace conference in Goma.
“This is a very important milestone for peace in eastern Congo,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. “But it’s only the beginning and the road ahead will be difficult. Implementation will have its own challenges.”
Some analysts expressed concern that Nkunda’s own future was not clearly defined in the peace deal.
“We all know Nkunda will not receive amnesty. That problem is not going away, and they will have to find a way to deal with it,” Henri Boshoff, military analyst with South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, told Reuters.
Congo is considered a desirable resource of strategic minerals coveted by both the West and China, such as copper, gold, diamonds and uranium. The country’s size and central location make it a key for stability at the heart of Africa.