By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm on Wednesday at the crisis in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and said he had discussed a plan to bring stability to the region with leaders of Rwanda, Uganda and other African states.
Congolese troops, aided by U.N. peacekeepers have been battling so-called M23 rebels - who U.N. experts and Congolese officials say are backed by neighboring Rwanda and Uganda - for the past eight months in the mineral-rich east of the country.
Last month the U.N. force in Congo, known as MONUSCO, suffered a severe blow to its image after it chose not to intervene as well-equipped M23 rebels seized control of the eastern city of Goma. The rebels withdrew after 11 days.
U.N. officials defended the force's approach as necessary to avoid putting Goma's civilians at risk. The world body launched a "strategic review" of MONUSCO to see how its mandate might be beefed up, though U.N. officials say any changes to it would be meaningless without improvements in the Congolese army and an end of meddling by Rwanda and Uganda.
"The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo remains the scene of instability, including sexual violence committed by combatants on all sides," Ban told reporters.
"The time has come for the international community to rethink its approach to the DRC (Congo) and the Great Lakes region," he said. "The underlying causes of the conflict in the region must be addressed in a comprehensive manner."
Ban described the situation in eastern Congo as being of "grave concern," adding that he was "trying to find some broader political framework" to end the crisis.
"We have a certain broader political framework on the basis of which we can really resolve this one as soon as possible," he said, without disclosing details.
Ban said he had spoken with the presidents of a number of African countries, including Congo's Joseph Kabila, Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, as well as the leaders of Tanzania, Congo-Brazaville, Angola and South Africa about his "political framework" plan.
The plan would include some changes in the U.N. mission in Congo, said Ban, who added that the world body was looking at ways to "enhance the capacity of MONUSCO."
U.N. officials told Reuters privately that Ban hoped an agreement would soon be signed and that he might travel to Africa to be present for the signing. The plan would involve a commitment by Kabila to improve the Congolese army and pledges from Uganda and Rwanda not to interfere in eastern Congo.
While M23 rebels have been accused of atrocities in eastern Congo, Congolese government forces routinely face accusations of rape and other war crimes.
The United Nations said on Tuesday that 126 women were raped in the eastern town of Minova last month after Congolese troops fled there as rebels advanced on Goma.
U.N. officials said Kabila's announcement on Saturday that he was planning an initiative for Congo aimed at uniting the vast Central African country, which has been torn by an eastern rebellion and a furious political opposition, was related to Ban's "political framework" idea. (Reporting By Louis Charbonneau; Editing by David Brunnstrom)
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