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Explainer: Behind Congolese conflict

  • Story Highlights
  • Conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo dates back to independence
  • Fighting in eastern DRC has been ongoing despite 2003 deal to end war
  • Latest violence erupted in October when led by a Tutsi renegade general
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(CNN) -- A shaky cease-fire between government troops and rebels was holding Saturday, a week after fighting broke out in the volatile eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cease-fire meant thousands of displaced people could receive food and water for the first time in days.

Following is a history of the conflict in Congo and how the country has developed since its independence nearly 50 years ago.

The country after independence: 1960-1998

The Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire, gained independence from Belgium in June 1960. The head of the army, General Mobutu Sese Seko, came to power in a military coup in 1965 and remained largely unchallenged throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Mobutu presided over endemic corruption and there were unsuccessful efforts to remove him from power in the early 1990s. The country was weakened after the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

In 1996, dissident groups led by Laurent Kabila -- and strongly supported by Rwanda and Uganda -- rose in revolt. They entered the country's capital of Kinshasa in May 1997 and Kabila declared himself president.

Mobutu fled to Morocco and died soon afterward.

The second conflict: 1998-2003

Internal and external dissatisfaction with Kabila gradually grew until 1998, when a new rebel group -- again backed by Rwanda and Uganda -- formed and a second conflict broke out.

The fighting ultimately drew in six countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

By 1999, the front lines had stabilized, with three warring groups respectively controlling a third of the country. A cease-fire was signed in Lusaka, Zambia, in August of that year and the United Nations set up a peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, to implement the accord.

In January 2001, Kabila was assassinated by one of his bodyguards and his son, Joseph Kabila, took over. Under the younger Kabila, foreign forces gradually departed and the Congolese parties managed to reach an agreement for a transitional national government that included the three major belligerent groups, a number of smaller ex-rebel movements and representatives of civil society and the political opposition.

In May 2003, Uganda was the last of the foreign countries to withdraw its troops from Congo, allowing the new government accord to be put into force in June. It put an end to a five-year war that had cost between 3 and 4 million lives.

Continued problems after 2003

While the 2003 agreement officially put an end to the war, it did not end all fighting in eastern Congo, near the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Some of the factions in the area splintered, leading to fighting among different elements. Dissident commanders who did not agree with the transitional government process mounted rebellions.

Proxy armies set up by Uganda and Rwanda remained in the area and continued to arm militia groups, which fought among themselves and preyed on the civilian population. Indigenous Congolese fighters in some cases refused to accept their own government's authority.

Armed bandits also contribute to the violence, using weapons to extort money and goods from the local population.

More recent fighting between government forces and rebels has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes. The ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis kills 45,000 people in Congo every month, according to a January 2008 report from the International Rescue Committee.

President Joseph Kabila retained his post after winning the presidential election in 2006.

The latest fighting: October-November 2008

On October 24, Congolese rebels led by renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda launched a renewed bout of heavy fighting in the eastern province of North Kivu. It came days after a tenuous week-old U.N.-brokered cease-fire between rebels and government forces fell apart.

The fighting between Nkunda's rebels and Congolese army regulars displaced thousands of civilians almost immediately, the United Nations said. Many of the displaced fled to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.

Nkunda is the leader of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Rebels from the CNDP clashed with U.N. peacekeepers and government forces in several towns and villages in North Kivu.

The province was already home to numerous camps run by the United Nations and other organizations housing as many as 1 million displaced people. The attacks uprooted thousands of people living at the camps, humanitarian officials said, and some aid workers were forced to leave the area altogether.

Nkunda's rebel forces declared a cease-fire late Wednesday after four days of fighting. The cease-fire was still holding Saturday.

Ethnic background to the fighting

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the country's Hutu majority killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, according to the United Nations. Rwandan Hutus over the border in Congo feared returning home, believing they would be targeted for revenge by Tutsis, who dominate the Rwandan government.

Those Rwandan Hutus remained in the jungles of eastern Congo, where they preyed on local residents and participated in fighting with Hutu militias.

In May 2005, it was reported that Rwandan Hutu rebels in eastern Congo carried out hundreds of summary executions, rapes, beatings and kidnappings of Congolese civilians in the province of South Kivu, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

Nkunda, a Tutsi, has repeatedly blamed the Congolese government for failing to protect the Tutsis from attacks by Rwandan Hutus in Congo.

All About Laurent NkundaDemocratic Republic of the CongoUnited NationsRwanda

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