African leaders gather in Zambia on Thursday for a summit to try to guide new Congo President Joseph Kabila towards peace after his father's assassination, but the talks seem set to make little headway in the absence of Rwandan and Ugandan leaders.
The rulers of Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola are expected to join Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambian leader Frederick Chiluba in a fresh bid to kick-start the failed Congo peace agreement signed in 1999 but virtually ignored by all parties.
Delegations representing the three main eastern Congo-based rebel groups are already in the Zambian capital for the talks, senior Zambian Foreign Ministry officials told Reuters.
But Rwandan military leader Paul Kagame - with Uganda, a key backer of the rebel alliance - has refused to attend the talks.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is also expected to miss Thursday's talks because of a hectic presidential election campaign schedule, his office said.
"The President will not be attending but Uganda is already represented," Ugandan presidential press secretary Hope Kivengere told Reuters. "He will continue with his campaigns in northern Uganda as scheduled," he said.
Kagame's refusal to attend has cast a long shadow over the talks, though analysts say it should not cause long-term harm.
"We are making progress," Zambia's Chiluba, the chief Congo mediator, told reporters on Tuesday.
Zambian government officials in Rwanda told Reuters later on Wednesday Kagame would not attend the summit, but if he did unexpectedly show up on Thursday it would be due to enormous international pressure on him to help bring peace to the Congo.
Fighting has raged in the Congo since 1998, when Rwanda and Uganda, who helped put Joseph's father Laurent Kabila in power in 1997, turned on him and backed rebels trying to topple him.
Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola support the Congo. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is scheduled to leave Harare for Lusaka later on Wednesday, officials said.
Rwanda and Uganda have thousands of troops occupying large swathes of the Congo, backing different rebel groups opposed to the government in Kinshasa.
Joseph Kabila was catapulted to power last month after his father was murdered by a bodyguard.
"Everyone going to the summit is upbeat. There is a new leader (in the Congo), who has already impressed upon the international community the need for peace," said Dr Alfred Nhema, head of the political science department at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.
"Rebels are also coming (to the talks) in a manner that suggests gains on the path to the achievement of peace and tranquillity in the Congo," Nhema told Reuters by telephone.
"Although Paul Kagame is not coming to Lusaka, he has already met the new Congo ruler and they seemed to agree on getting the peace objective dealt with," Nhema said.
U.N. CUTS NUMBER OF PEACEKEEPERS
Acting ahead of the summit, the United Nations said it would cut the number of peacekeepers it intends to send to the vast central African nation, but hopes to send them sooner.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was heartened by the calm that had descended on the battle lines that divide the hostile forces in Africa's third largest country.
The planned U.N. force would comprise 500 military observers, protected by close to 2,500 troops. The original plan was for 5,537 troops and observers authorised by the Security Council a year ago. The United Nations now has 200 military personnel in the Congo.
Rwanda has about 20,000 troops in the Congo, Uganda has 10,000, Zimbabwe 12,000, Angola 7,000 and Namibia 2,000, statistics provided by Annan showed.
Militarily powerful Rwanda, a tiny central African state, has significant influence in the Congo, a mineral-rich nation whose vast natural resources have been plundered by rulers over the past four decades.
A diplomatic turf war between impoverished Zambia and economically better-off South Africa has posed the latest threat to the Congo peace process. Pretoria wants a greater role in peacemaking in Africa, but Zambia says it has nursed the Congo for long and is the appropriate mediator.