Insurgent leaders have signed a symbolic peace treaty with the government of Democratic Republic of Congo. The pact aims to end years of violence in the country's eastern parts.
A representative for Laurent Nkunda, the main renegade insurgent leader — and members of other rival factions, such as the Mai Mai militia — signed the document on Wednesday at a ceremony in Goma attended by Congolese President Joseph Kabila.
"This is the best chance for peace that I have seen for the people of eastern Congo," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has closely followed issues in Congo for years.
Nkunda is the former army general who broke from the government to establish feudal ownership of land in North Kivu province. He is supported by a number of army battalions that deserted the national forces with him.
The conflict-ridden eastern region of Congo has seen some 800,000 people flee their homes in the past year.
Fighting among various factions has continued in Congo, which has a population of 66 million people, despite a formal end the country's civil war in 2002. In 2006, Congo held its first democratic election in more than four decades.
Local militias have clashed with each other and with the beleaguered national army, which has been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses.
Human rights groups blame all sides of conducting rape campaigns and forcing underage boys to enlist as fighters.
Perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide have also taken refuge in the region's poorly policed areas, adding to the tension.
Peace talks have been underway between government officials and representatives from numerous rebel groups in Goma since Jan. 6. Negotiations have involved nearly 1,300 participants.
On Tuesday, the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organization internationally recognized for its aid efforts, released a report stating that 5.4 million Congolese have died as a result of the conflict in the past decade.