- DR Congo - Joseph Kabila - Laurent Nkunda - Rwanda - Uganda
REUTERS - Rwandan and Ugandan troops deployed in Democratic Republic of Congo to fight rebels will return home by the end of February, Congolese President Joseph Kabila told journalists in the capital Kinshasa on Saturday.
Thousands of soldiers from Congo's eastern Great Lakes neighbours, which attacked the giant central African country in a 1998-2003 war, launched joint operations with the Congolese army in December and early January.
"It was a difficult decision, but a decision was needed... The deadline must certainly not go beyond the month of February," Kabila said.
More than 3,500 Rwandan soldiers crossed over the border into Congo's war-ravaged province of North Kivu this month at Kabila's invitation to pursue the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The presence of the mainly Hutu FDLR, some of whose members carried out the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred, is seen as at the root of continuing conflict in Congo's troubled east.
Around 1,300 Ugandan troops began attacking Lord's Resistance Army bases in Congo's northeastern Orientale Province on Dec. 14, aiming to wipe out the Ugandan rebels after their leader, Joseph Kony, again refused to sign a peace deal.
Kabila's decision to allow foreign troops to operate in Congo, just five years after the war's official end, marked a dramatic turnaround in its relations with Uganda and Rwanda.
Kinshasa still has no formal diplomatic relations with the two countries, and the young president has come under heavy criticism from political opponents and allies for the move.
In the late 1990s, Rwanda and Uganda invaded Congo and backed rebel groups aiming to topple the government in Kinshasa, helping spark a six-year regional conflict that sucked in a half a dozen African nations. The war and resulting humanitarian catastrophe has killed 5.4 million people in a decade.
Rwanda has long accused Congo of collaboration with the FDLR. And a United Nations experts' report accused Kigali of backing the Congolese Tutsi-dominated National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) as recently as late last year.
Last week Rwandan authorities apprehended the CNDP's leader renegade General Laurent Nkunda, but Kabila said the arrest was not linked to the agreement allowing Rwanda to deploy troops on Congolese soil against the FDLR.
"Rwanda and the international community have always accused Congo of integrating the FDLR, of giving military, diplomatic, and financial backing to the FDLR," Kabila said.
"The operations underway have for objective the resolution of both the CNDP and FDLR problems. Nkunda's arrest has nothing to do with it."
Congolese officials have said they are seeking Nkunda's extradition to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed under his leadership.
The United Nations had been providing administrative support to the joint Congo-Rwanda military campaign, but said at the weekend it could no longer back an operation in which one of Nkunda's former military chiefs, General Bosco Ntaganda, held high rank.
Ntaganda is accused of war crimes by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
Kabila is already struggling due to a serious economic downturn and plummeting popularity. Nkunda's extradition could help him sell the politically risky deals with Rwanda and Uganda to a sceptical Congolese public.
However at Saturday's news conference, the president sought to dampen growing expectations that Nkunda would be handed over soon.
"The answer is yes. But this is a process. This isn't a sack of beans or corn. This is a gentleman. There is a political and diplomatic process. On the judicial front, we are working on his extradition to Congo," Kabila said.