PARIS - The United States on Friday hailed the successful conclusion of peace talks between the Democratic Republic of Congo and M23 rebels as a step towards lasting peace in Africa's Great Lakes region.
Russ Feingold, the US special envoy for the region, helped broker the deal, which was clinched late Thursday in Nairobi.
The talks concluded with the M23, which laid down its arms a month ago, undertaking to transform itself into a peaceful political party, while the DRC government said it would assist the process of demobilising the rebels, which may include a partial amnesty.
Although the talks fell short of achieving a binding accord, Feingold described their outcome as "good news in a region that has had a lot of bad luck."
"It really is a major step forward," the former US Senator told AFP in a telephone interview during a stopover in Paris on his way back to the United States.
"The eastern Congo has been a terrible situation for almost 20 years because of the different armed conflicts which have left between five and six million people dead, resulted in an awful amount of sexual violence and thousands of child soldiers being enlisted to fight," he added.
"It has been one of the worst tragedies of modern times."
"What these talks have done is to get rid of one of the worst groups, the M23. It took a year, the international community had to get very involved but we did stop them in the end.
"It is a first step, and it is an important first step."
Chairperson of Southern African Development Community (SADC) and President of Malawi Joyce Banda (L) and President Museveni signing as guarantors to the deal, as special envoys from various regions of the world witness. CREDIT/AFP
Feingold said the priority now had to be secure agreements to neutralise other armed groups operating in the region and to push forward talks between the countries involved aimed at addressing the obstacles to lasting peace.
"We believe changes in the region will only come through broader talks between the countries involved which address the root causes of the problems and ensure the people of the region can get the benefit of its resources," Feingold added.
As well as disarming the armed groups responsible for the horrors the region has witnessed, Feingold said the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda needed to work together to seal their common borders and ensure armed groups can no longer flit between the different countries at will.
The countries also need to address security and land tenure issues which are currently preventing hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their homes, Feingold said.
The US is also pushing for the countries to step up economic cooperation to ensure they can take advantage of an offer of $1 billion of funding from the World Bank.