Congolese rebels and government officials opened tense talks Sunday, with both sides vowing to end a crisis that has led to widespread atrocities and sparked fears of an all-out regional conflict.
"Peace, security, national cohesion and the wellbeing of the people of Congo cannot have a value put on it," DR Congo's Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda said in an opening speech at the talks, in the Ugandan capital.
Delegates to the talks should work to ensure that the future of the chronically volatile but mineral-rich east was "devoid of the spectre of repetitive conflict," he added.
Tshibanda is leading a government delegation that also includes members of the Democratic Republic of Congo's national assembly and senate.
The M23 rebels' lightening capture of the mining hub of Goma on November 20, eight months after the army mutineers launched an uprising against the government, had raised fears of a wider war and a major humanitarian crisis.
M23 fighters, largely from the ethnic Tutsi community, pulled out of Goma last weekend.
But they are expected to present a raft of demands to the government, including a call for major political reform for the war-weary region.
"M23 will not withhold any effort in participating in the resolution of the conflicts," rebel delegation head Francois Rucugoza said. M23 wanted solutions not only for the east but "the entire country", he added.
But talks threatened to stumble almost immediately, after Rucugoza launched a wide-ranging attack on the Kinshasa administration. He blamed conflict in eastern DR Congo on "bad governance and, above all, a lack of visionary leadership".
That prompted Tshibanda to threaten stalling the talks if he was not allowed to rebut the rebel claims.
He would soon make a statement "about the crimes that M23 has committed" in the war-torn North Kivu region, he added.
Despite the tensions, the talk's mediator, Ugandan Defence Minister Crispus Kiyongahe said the opening of negotiations "gives hope to the people of the DRC, the people in the region and the international community.
"There is now a great opportunity to find a sustainable political solution to the conflict between the government of DRC and the M23," he added.
The talks would alternate between Kampala and the flashpoint city of Goma, he said.
The talks are the latest in several bids to end a crisis that has forced hundreds of thousands of people in North Kivu, in the eastern DR Congo, from their homes.
Eastern DR Congo, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, was the cradle of back-to-back wars that drew in much of the region from 1996 to 2003. They were fought largely over its vast wealth of copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key mobile phone component.
Both rebels and government troops have raped and killed civilians and looted towns during recent battles, UN investigators said Friday. They also said the M23 had recruited at least 300 child soldiers.
The meeting began a day after southern African nations proposed to deploy a neutral force to rein in the multiple militia forces in the region, including the M23 fighters, Rwandan Hutu insurgents and other armed groups.
Tanzania, which hosted the summit meeting of the 15-nation member Southern African Development Community (SADC), agreed to lead the force, with troops ready to deploy by December 14, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said.
The regional bloc also called for the mandate of the existing United Nations peacekeeping force in DR Congo to be strengthened to allow them greater freedom to battle militia forces.
The instability in eastern DR Congo was exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power.
Both Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of backing the fighters, with a UN report quoting sources that more than 1,000 Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebels, while Kampala provided logistical support.
Kigali and Kampala have denied involvement in the conflict.
M23 political leader Jean-Marie Runiga is not part of the rebel delegation to the talks, but he is believed to be committed to the process.
DR Congo's four main opposition groups in Kinshasa's national assembly declined to join the talks because the government has refused to discuss any demands except those made by the M23 rebels.
The opposition, who objected to being given only observer status at the talks, said only "inclusive dialogue" between the majority in power, opposition, civil society groups and M23 rebels would provide an effective solution.