Congo rebels and African heads in pact

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REBEL COMMANDERS and six African leaders gather in Lusaka tomorrow to sign a peace plan designed to end the 11-month Congo civil war which has threatened the stability of the entire Central African region.

The agreement thrashed out by foreign and defence ministers of the six countries - Congo, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe Uganda and Rwanda - provides for a full ceasefire within 24 hours, and the creation of a unified army after a three-month "national dialogue" on the future of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Peace-keeping troops will be sent by the United Nations, or by the Organisation of African Unity which holds a summit in Algiers next week.

The pact was reached on the same day that the government and rebels sealed a peace agreement for the ferocious civil war in Sierra Leone, bringing the insurgents into a powersharing arrangement in Freetown, after a two- year war which took 20,000 lives. "This is a very comprehensive agreement. It looks like the dawn of a new era in our continent," the Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, said with understandable - if perhaps premature - optimism last night.

The Congo peace deal was warmly welcomed by the State Department in Washington, while a Foreign Office official in London called the pact "a real chance, the best chance so far to end the war".

But if Congo's sheer size and previous turbulent history is anything to go by, a lasting truce could be difficult to enforce. Real trust still has to be established between the two sides. Without it, a rebel withdrawal from the eastern third of the country might prove impossible.

Last night, Pasteur Bizimungu, President of Rwanda which along with Uganda has been the prime backer of the rebels, openly questioned whether the Congolese leader, Laurent Kabila, would deliver on his undertaking. At the UN, one senior peace-keeping official warned that any such operation would be "expensive, difficult and beset by risks".

The war spread beyond Congo's borders in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda supported the rebels who were fighting Hutu militias who fled from Rwanda to what was then Zaire after carrying out genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi minority in 1994 and were subsequently protected by Mr Kabila. Having been almost defeated early in the war, the Congolese President clung to power thanks to the military backing of Namibia, Angola, and Zimbabwe.