KAMPALA, Uganda, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- The presidents of the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Rwanda, protagonists in Africa's deadliest war, say they have made "significant progress" toward finding a settlement to the seemingly endless bloodbath in the eastern Congo.
That they are actually sitting around a table at a lakeside Ugandan resort is due largely to a stepped up diplomatic push by Western powers, including the United States, to find a way to end a conflict in which some 4.5 million people have died, largely from war-related starvation and disease, since 1994.
On Sept. 5, a security summit in Kampala, attended by 11 regional leaders along with representatives of the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union urged that peace talks be convened within three days "and concluded within a maximum period of 14 days."
It took four days, but the closed door peace talks, with Ugandan mediators, finally got under way Tuesday.
That's raised hopes for the first time in years that a solution to a war that's directly involved nine African nations and at least 20 armed groups, largely fighting over the DRC's mineral riches, may be finally within reach.
For the first time, the United States appointed a special envoy, former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, to join the European powers and African states in seeking to end to a war that has also displaced millions of Congolese.
The Kampala summit last week was convened after heavy fighting in the eastern Congo between forces of the DRC government in Kinshasa, headed by President Joseph Kabila, and the M23 rebel group that the U.N. says is supported, armed and directed by the Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame.
The hard core of M23 consists of Congolese soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic group who deserted in 2012 claiming Kinshasa had failed to honor a peace deal signed March 23, 2009 -- hence the name adopted by the rebels.
The new high-powered peace effort came after M23, largely made up of Congolese army mutineers and other African renegades, declared a unilateral ceasefire that halted the battles with Congolese forces around the strategic eastern city of Goma, part of the Great Lakes region of central Africa and near the Rwandan border.
The Congolese forces were backed by a special 3,000-strong U.N. combat brigade ordered to intervene in the fighting and engage M23 in a bid to crush the rebel force that's widely seen, with Rwandan direction, to be the cause of the current bloodletting. M23 overran Goma in late 2012.
On Sept. 8, M23 leader Bertrand Bisimwa reportedly offered to disband his forces if their key foe, the Congo-backed Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, is disarmed.
There are concerns that Kabila's government, now with the upper hand, may seek to impose harsh conditions that M23 will find difficult to accept.
"This war comes from elsewhere," Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende declared last week in a thinly veiled reference to Rwanda.
However, Kigali and M23 may have felt the game was up when the U.N. brigade, reinforced with South African and Tanzanian troops using Rooivalk attack helicopters, went into action.
The presence of troops from those African powers, which have strained relations with Kigali themselves, threatened to draw Rwanda into open warfare.
The Rwandan regime has repeatedly denied supporting M23, but Kagame has come under growing international pressure to disengage from the Congolese conflict.
The United Nations has thrown its full weight behind Kinshasa. All told, there are 20,000 peacekeeping troops in the eastern DRC.
Even if Kigali and M23 throw in the towel, it's likely the eastern Congo will remain a violent place, its mineral wealth a magnet for rebels of various stripes and greedy neighbors.
U.N. officials estimate there are some 50,000 armed men in the region belonging to several groups.
The DRC, the size of Western Europe, is rich in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc, with large deposits of coltan, used in mobile phones and other electronic gadgets, and casserite, used in food packaging.
Over the years the Congo's natural riches have attracted adventurers, unscrupulous corporations, warlords and corrupt governments whose greed has divided the population into competing ethnic groups.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which the Hutu regime slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis, enflamed Congo's internal rifts. Two million Hutus fled into the DRC.