Rwandan Hutu Rebels Denounce Genocide, Halt War
Rwanda's main Hutu rebel group announced on Thursday they were ending their war against Rwanda and for the first time denounced the 1994 genocide of Tutsis that has been blamed on many of their members.
A delegation representing the rebel organization, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), made the announcement after secret negotiations at the Sant'Egidio religious community in the heart of Rome.
"The FDLR condemns the genocide committed against Rwanda and their authors," FDLR President Ignace Murwanashyaka said, reading from a statement. "Henceforward, the FDLR has decided to transform its fight into a political struggle."
Hutu rebels are accused of taking part in the massacre of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. Until Thursday, many FDLR fighters had denied genocide occurred, calling the killings tit-for-tat attacks.
Murwanashyaka said his group was ready to cooperate with international justice and would lay down its arms in a bid to end the "catastrophic humanitarian" situation in the region.
The Hutu rebels were chased out of Rwanda following the genocide, taking refuge in the jungles of neighboring Congo.
Since then they have been at the center of tensions in the vast country's eastern region where violence, hunger and disease have killed millions of people.
A representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo hailed the FDLR move, saying it was an historic moment for Africa.
"Even a month ago it was impossible to believe that they would issue such a strong statement," Congo's roving ambassador, Antoine Ghonda, told Reuters. "We are confident that this will be the turning point in ending the conflict, but they will need guarantees from Rwanda."
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was encouraged by the FDLR statement and called on the Congolese and Rwandan governments to do everything necessary to ensure the rebels' voluntary disarmament and return to Rwanda, chief spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Annan had directed the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo "to do everything possible within its means to facilitate this process," Eckhard said.
The FDLR constitutes the largest grouping of Hutu rebels in eastern Congo, estimated at about 14,000 fighters, although there are Burundian Hutus who also operate in the east.
Tiny but militarily powerful Rwanda has invaded its huge neighbor twice, in 1996 and 1998, saying it had a right to hunt down the rebels and has threatened to launch fresh cross-border raids unless they are neutralized.
Richard Sezibera, Rwandan President Paul Kagame's adviser on the Great Lakes, told Reuters from Kigali that the FDLR statement was welcome if true.
"If they have renounced the struggle they should totally disarm. We shall know how serious they are if and when they disarm," he said.
The peace talks started in Rome two months ago but they were kept secret amid fears Rwandan authorities might undermine them, government officials and diplomats in Congo said.
Rwanda has long been accused of using the FDLR as a pretext for continued military, political and economic intervention in the mineral-rich but lawless east of Congo.
In its statement, the FDLR recognized the "catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Great Lakes" and urged an international inquiry into "crimes committed" in the region.
The FDLR also called for Rwandan refugees to be allowed back into their country. Disarmament officials estimate there may be as many as 30,000 FDLR dependents in Congo.
Diplomats in Rome said it was now up to the Rwandan government to provide guarantees that disarmed rebels could return home safely and be awarded full legal rights.
Returning former FDLR fighters to the killing grounds of 1994 would not pose a problem, Sezibera said.
"We've had a long process of integrating these groups. They don't pose an insurmountable challenge. The important thing is that they cease to be a security threat to Rwanda," he said.
However, FDLR fighters suspected of involvement in the genocide would be investigated and tried, he added.
U.N. and government officials in Kinshasa said there would be a follow-up meeting in Rome on Saturday at which the different groups, including the United Nations, would discuss the methods and timing of the disarmament and repatriation.
U.N. sources said they hoped the process would begin within a matter of weeks.
Sant'Egidio is a Roman Catholic movement of lay people who seek to advance peace around the world. Its greatest diplomatic success came in 1992 when it helped reach a deal to end 16 years of civil war that killed 1 million people in Mozambique. (Additional reporting by Katie Nguyen in Nairobi, David Lewis in Kinshasa, Ed Stoddard in Johannesburg and Irwin Arieff in New York)
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