On Saturday, leaders of the East African region reiterated their plea for an urgent ceasefire by all parties in the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which puts the military of the nation against a rebel group it accuses Rwanda of aiding.
The leaders of the East African Community (EAC) group demanded a “immediate ceasefire by all sides” during a summit held in the city of Burundi, Bujumbura, according to a communiqué released at the conclusion of the gathering.
The M23 rebel group has seized large areas of eastern Congo’s North Kivu province in a rapid onslaught since Oct. 20 that has threatened the provincial capital, Goma.
The conflict has inflamed regional tensions with Congo accusing neighbour Rwanda of backing and sponsoring the Tutsi-led rebellion. United Nations experts and Western powers have also accused Rwanda of backing the M23, although Rwanda has denied any involvement.
Saturday’s meeting was the latest diplomatic effort to try to end the insurgency, which has displaced at least 520,000 people since March 2022 in North Kivu, a territory long plagued by conflict.
Earlier this week, Pope Francis visited Congo and called for an end to violence.
Regional leaders had brokered an agreement in November under which the rebels were meant to cease fire and withdraw from recently seized positions by Jan. 15, but that did not happen.
A U.N. internal report said the rebels were flouting the ceasefire and withdrawal terms.
Saturday’s summit was attended by heads of state from Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi and senior officials from the region.
They also demanded the withdrawal of all foreign and armed groups from Congo and asked regional military chiefs to meet within one week and set a timeframe for the withdrawal.
“The summit reiterated its call to all parties to de-escalate tensions,” the communique read.
At the summit Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi warned the commander of an East African regional military force deployed in eastern Congo, Jeff Nyagah, a Kenyan, against showing bias toward the rebels.
“Do not favor the M23. It would be a shame for the population to turn on you,” Tshisekedi is seen telling Nyagah in a video tweeted by his spokeswoman, Tina Salama. “You came to help us and not to have problems. Pay attention to that. Communicate with the population,” Tshisekedi said.
Tshisekedi warned the commander while Kenyan President William Ruto could be seen watching from a neighboring location. In order to help put an end to decades of carnage in the region, the EAC decided on a regional force to be deployed in eastern Congo in April of last year.
The village of Kitshanga in Masisi area and a brand-new road were taken over by M23 rebels on January 27, further cutting off the provincial capital Goma.