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Key City In Congo Quiet After Rebel Takeover


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to get an update now on one of the most intractable, long-running and deadly conflicts in the world. These days the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo is in the east. It's an area rich in mineral resources, but also overwhelmed for years by a rebellion that many say is backed by its neighbor, Rwanda.

Last week, rebel forces took over a main regional capital in eastern Congo, the city of Goma. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.

To help us better understand a very complicated situation, we called Jason Stearns. He's an American analyst from Yale University and he's on the ground there in Goma.

Good morning.

JASON STEARNS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us what Goma is looking like now from what you're able to see where you are.

STEARNS: There's not a lot of violence going on in town at the moment. It's very quiet. There's very few soldiers. The rebels initially said that they refused to withdraw from town, as was demanded by regional leaders, until the president, the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, had accepted negations with them. And then there was a raft of other conditions that they had imposed.

And then this morning we hear that actually they have, in fact, accepted the withdrawal from town without any conditions whatsoever. But it is a very uncertain situation.

MONTAGNE: Who exactly are the members of this rebel group that took control of Goma?

STEARNS: The M23, as they are called, are mostly members of a former rebel group that integrated the Congolese army in 2009. They were integrated after a peace deal between Rwanda and the Congo, because that rebel group had been supported by Rwanda. And after they were integrated into the Congolese army, they were given very preferential positions in the eastern Congo.

And they ran pretty much a parallel army within an army in the eastern Congo. That arrangement was not acceptable to the Congolese government. And then earlier this year they made signs that they wanted to crack down on those parallel chains of command. And in response those rebels then defected from the national army and re-launched a new rebellion that is called the M23.

MONTAGNE: Is it possible to say that this war in eastern Congo is effectively a war between Congo and its neighbor Rwanda over control of some very important resources there?

STEARNS: One of the main driving issues of the conflict in the Congo today is that Rwanda wants to maintain a sphere of influence in the eastern Congo for a variety of reasons. There are obviously economic interests here. There are a vast number of different mineral deposits in the eastern Congo. But there are also security interests for the Rwandan government.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the regional aspect of this, because besides Rwanda being involved in the fighting, Uganda, another neighbor, is involved how?

STEARNS: Well, first I have to tell you that the Congolese conflict has always been a regional conflict. Between 1996 and 2003 was a war that involved a total of nine different African countries. It's often called Africa's world war. And indeed today again we see various different countries involved. The M23 rebellion had been backed by Rwanda, but it also received military support from the Ugandan government, albeit at a much smaller scale.

And indeed, and very sort of paradoxically, the Ugandan government, which is the chair of a regional political body, has been also the peace broker in negotiations between the Congolese government, the rebels and the Rwandan government.

At the same time, the Congolese government that is extremely weak has been seeking support from other countries in the region, notably Angola, to receive military support to fight against these rebels and to fight against the neighboring countries. So there are signs that there is now an increased regionalization and that this new conflict is dragging in, albeit at a very small scale, still dragging in other countries.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

STEARNS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Jason Stearns spoke to us from Goma in eastern Congo. He's the author of "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.