French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it is time for new momentum in cooperation between the Democratic Republic of Congo and its eastern neighbors to resolve years of conflict in the troubled Great Lakes region.
Following talks with President Joseph Kabila, President Sarkozy praised his Congolese counterpart for allowing Rwandan troops into eastern Congo earlier this year.
President Sarkozy told a joint session of parliament in Kinshasa that there should be a radical, new foundation to Congo's relations with its eastern neighbors. He said he is aware of the difficulties in the region, and President Kabila's move to cooperate with Rwanda was a "courageous decision."
Rwandan and Congolese troops fought together against Hutu militia, some of whom took part in Rwanda's genocide 15 years ago. Those groups have since destabilized Congo's Kivu regions by periodically launching cross-border raids into Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.
Stopping those attacks and protecting ethnic Tutsi in Kivu were the biggest reasons Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi gave for backing two rebellions in Congo - the first of which toppled long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and put President Kabila's father Laurent in power.
The decision to allow foreign troops into Kivu was not without political risk for President Kabila as many Congolese distrust the governments in Kigali and Kampala. Voicing his opposition to the move, the co-founder of Mr. Kabila's political party resigned as leader of the lower house of parliament.
President Sarkozy said January's joint military operations with Rwanda and Uganda are "the first fruits of a real re-foundation of the region."
President Sarkozy said Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi should expand beyond the existing economic community of the Great Lakes to work more closely with Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya to build agricultural, commercial and industrial projects including improved transportation and protection of natural resources.
President Sarkozy said we are here in the second largest forest in the world. And the world wants the forest of the Congo River Basin to be preserved.
On the first visit by a French president to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 25 years, Mr. Sarkozy was joined by leaders of French telecommunications, transport, and public works firms. They are looking for contracts to help rebuild the country, starting with the renovation of Kinshasa's airport.
During the visit, the French delegation signed an accord that President Sarkozy said will reassure investors who felt threatened by past instability.
President Sarkozy said he is particularly pleased that the French company Areva signed a mineral contract with the government in Kinshasa. At a lunch with President Kabila, President Sarkozy said the government has a big challenge to lead the country down the road of development and prosperity, and France will help.
President Kabila said the excellent relations between France and the Democratic Republic of Congo are based on a mutual respect for liberty, a spirit of independence, democracy, and the French-speaking community of nations.
President Kabila said his country has come out of a long conflict and is succeeding in both national reconciliation and the democratization of political life. He said he is optimistic that his government will succeed in rebuilding the country and consolidating peace, especially in the east.
President Kabila saluted what he called the decisive contributions of France towards democracy and ongoing reforms in security, the judiciary, and the promotion of human rights. He said France has helped safeguard Congo's territorial integrity and sovereignty in the difficult moments of the recent past, and Mr. Kabila hopes this alliance will continue in other areas.
President Sarkozy continues his two-day trip to Africa across the Congo River in Brazzaville with talks that are expected to include French oil investments in the Republic of Congo. Friday he travels to Niger which is a major source of uranium for France's state-run nuclear-energy producer.