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The BBC's Mark Doyle:
"It's easy to be sceptical about this imperfect peace."
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Sunday, 6 August, 2000, 00:32 GMT 01:32 UK
Congo's glimmer of hope
Congo refugees
Hope for those displaced by the conflict
By West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle

I was sitting in a café overlooking the airport in the city of Pointe Noire, the economic capital of Congo Brazzaville.

I was sharing my breakfast table with a friendly Nigerian diplomat.

But while we waited for our omelettes, conversation was hard.

Every few minutes the engines of a huge transport plane roared into life, drowning out our discussion about the peace process in Congo Brazzaville.

UN convoy
Land routes were dangerous until recently
Lumbering old propeller planes were everywhere - on the runway, on the apron below the shaking windows of the café, and even parked, haphazardly, on grass verges because there was no space left on the tarmac.

The planes were being loaded with rice, beer, tinned food and all manner of other consumer items.

In any normal place, heavy, relatively cheap products travel by road or rail.

But in Congo Brazzaville the roads are mostly mud traps, and the railways were long ago sabotaged in the war.

And, until very recently, overland routes were extremely dangerous because of the fighting and the roadblocks which both sides set up.

Changing scene

But the scene at the airport may be about to change.

The ceasefire signed between the warring parties in Congo Brazzaville late last year is holding, and the roads and railways are, slowly, being repaired.

Helicopter gunship
Heavy arms flooded into the country
I've just returned from a 400 km journey through the Congo jungle, without a military escort, and I was only stopped at a roadblock once.

Admittedly, I was travelling in a white United Nations vehicle, with UN aid workers, and ordinary Congolese citizens are still harassed, for money, by soldiers at checkpoints.

But, and this is the real point, civilians are no longer regularly killed at the dreaded roadblocks.

Ethnic conflict

The war in Congo Brazzaville began in 1997 when ethnic and political tensions exploded into factional conflict.

The army split along ethnic lines, with most northern officers joining one side, most southerners the other.

President Denis Sassou Nguesso
President Sassou: Triumphant thus far
The offshore oil wealth of Congo Brazzaville, the prize that motivated many of the selfish warlords, also fuelled the war machine.

Heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and small arms flooded into the country for three long years, making life for ordinary people a living nightmare.

The winner in the war, so far, is the northern President, Denis Sass Nguesso, who gained military superiority by getting foreign troops, from neighbouring Angola, to fight for him.

But Sassou's military might is not the only reason the guns have gone silent.

Ceasefire deal

The southern rebels could have fought on indefinitely in the forests that I drove through - thick jungle is perfect terrain for troops to mount ambushes and then melt away with ease.

But the southerners are aiming for a political solution.

Congo rebels
The rebels have agreed to a ceasefire
They've agreed to a ceasefire with the President that they call a dictator, but only if he agrees to withdraw the Angolan troops supporting him and then hold fair elections.

That's a tall order for President Sassou, and he may well stall on these conditions.

He knows that the more densely populated south would have a big advantage in any free election.

It's easy to be sceptical about this imperfect peace.

The crunch issue - how to share power between north and south - hasn't yet been resolved.

Democracy is not in place, and its very likely that all sides are hiding guns in the jungle, in case the peace unravels.

But, for now, the fighting in the forests of Congo Brazzaville is over.

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11 Dec 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
Congo Brazzaville's hidden war
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