By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Recent military advances by U.N.-backed Congolese troops in crushing a 20-month rebellion in the east are a major step, but it is too soon to say if the M23 rebels are on the brink of defeat, a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.
In an interview with Reuters, Russ Feingold, U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa, said a peace deal between the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebels from the M23 group may be reached as soon as this weekend.
But he cautioned that a peace pact would not end the decades of instability in the region until the root causes of the conflict, including ethnic tensions, are resolved.
"There is every reason to believe that the parties are getting ready to finalize the agreement," the former U.S. senator said.
"It may have happened even without this fighting because we have made a lot of progress, but clearly the M23 is in a tougher position at this point," he said, adding, "It may well be that this weekend at least an initial signing and initialing will occur and perhaps disbanding of the M23 is imminent."
Millions of people have died from violence, disease and hunger since the 1990s as foreign-backed ethnic rebel groups have fought for control of eastern Congo's rich deposits of gold, diamonds and tin.
Congolese troops were hunting rebels deep in the forests and mountains along the border with Rwanda and Uganda on Thursday after the insurgents fled their stronghold in the eastern border town of Bunagana.
Peace talks between the government and M23 rebels resumed in Uganda on Wednesday after falling apart last week, just as the Congolese army was gaining more ground, supported by a beefed-up U.N. intervention brigade.
Feingold said it would be "a bit speculative at this point" to say whether the M23 retreat meant the rebellion was over or that the insurgents were regrouping.
"What we have seen here is a fairly measured, reasonable approach by both the Congolese government, and the Congolese military, and frankly it may well be that the M23 is not being assisted," he said.
"We don't know yet whether their sources of help in the past are diminished or gone, or whether this is possibly a tactical or strategic move by the M23 to come back later," he added.
While the Congo army's confidence had been lifted by the recent successes, Feingold cautioned government forces not to repeat abuses of the past against civilians that could ignite new conflicts.
"So much of this good news for the Congolese government, for its military, could be undone if that happens, but it's a golden opportunity for the credibility not only for the military but also for the nation," Feingold said.
He added, "Restraint does not mean not acting against illegal groups. It means don't overdo it (and) push this in a way that leads to greater conflict."
Feingold, who attended peace talks in Uganda last week along with other international envoys, said it was clear during the talks that Congolese officials were eager to seal an agreement, while M23 negotiators did not have the authority from commanders in the field to finalize a deal.
He acknowledged that a peace deal would build confidence but that lasting peace would not be forthcoming until the Congolese government controlled the entire country, including eastern Congo, and deep-seated ethnic tensions were addressed.
"It is not enough to get rid of the armed groups. This has been a recurrent story where groups like this go away and reconstitute themselves under another name," Feingold said.
He said the process had been helped by a sustained focus of the international community in ensuring all sides honor their commitments.
"The international community is demonstrating sustained attention that makes the good actors in the region realize we're there to support them and the bad actors realize we are not going away," he said. "That is an unusual dynamic that is assisting an African-led effort to solve this problems."
The appointment in July of Feingold, a liberal Democrat who served as chairman of a Senate subcommittee on Africa, signaled that the United States saw Congo as one of its foreign policy priorities after years of pressure from advocacy groups.
In July, Washington warned ally Rwanda to end its support for M23 rebels and to stay out of the conflict. It was careful not to directly implicate Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose poverty-fighting development programs are widely praised.
Feingold described Kagame as "one of the most effective leaders of recent decades" in rebuilding a country from genocide.
"It is my sense that he does not like the reputational damage that has come from people saying that his country has given support to an illegal armed group," Feingold said. "It doesn't fit the positive narrative he is building for his country.
"It is something that he does not want to have to deal with. So whatever the exact facts on the ground - we have our view of what those facts are and he has his - it is not in the interest of Mr. Kagame or Rwanda to have to face those kinds of accusations. I am hoping that Rwanda has decided being tainted by the M23 is not in its interests."
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Peter Cooney)