PRETORIA, South Africa — The Congolese government and several armed rebel groups signed a peace accord Tuesday aimed at ending a four-year civil war that claimed 2.5 million lives and raising hopes for greater stability throughout Central Africa.
President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and four vice presidents will lead a transitional government and share power until elections in 2006, according to the plan brokered by South Africa. Negotiators sang and embraced when the deal was signed at 2 a.m.
Tuesday's agreement followed months of talks between the government and the militias, which fought what eventually became a six-nation conflict often called Africa's First World War. Congo has already signed agreements with neighboring Rwanda and Uganda that led to withdrawals of foreign troops.
Some of the militias are still active, but diplomats, led by South Africa, were hoping that the agreement would finally end the violence.
Speaking at a leadership meeting of South Africa's ruling African National Congress near Cape Town, President Thabo Mbeki said he was confident that the peace deal would stick.
"It should bring about peace. It should bring about the reunification of the Congo. It should bring about the possibility of the Congolese people once again, for the second time, of deciding who they want in their government," Mbeki said.
But analysts and participants said that unity might be hard to come by for groups that have been trying to kill one another for so long.
"When you have been fighting each other for so many years, we cannot fool ourselves," said Thomas Nziratimano, chief negotiator for the Congolese Rally for Democracy, one of the rebel groups.
Congo has been ruled by dictators and racked by internal wars since the 1960s, when the United States helped overthrow Patrice Lumumba -- the country's only democratically elected president -- and install dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In 1997, warlord Laurent Kabila, father of the current president, drove Mobutu into exile, where he died. The senior Kabila was later assassinated.
In addition to this civil violence, Congo -- with its thick forest cover, its central location and rich reserves of gold, copper and diamonds -- became a haven and a staging ground for foreign rebels fighting their own wars in Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan and other neighboring nations.
The Congolese civil war started cooling off after Joseph Kabila was sworn in as president in 2001, 10 days after the assassination of his father.
"This would have never happened with" Laurent Kabila in power, said Bene M'Poko, Congo's ambassador to South Africa and one of the country's negotiators. "We have quality leadership in the person of Joseph Kabila -- he brought new ideas to the table."
South Africa also played a central role. Mbeki's administration has been involved in the peace process in Congo since the South African's 1999 inauguration. And a resolution in Congo would help fulfill one of Mbeki's self-designated mandates as the chairman of the newly established African Union -- to end wars in the region and foster stability and economic growth.
International pledges of assistance and, in Congo, broad support for ending the war also drove the process, M'Poko said.
"We are receiving real pressure back home," he said. "People were threatening to burn down politicians' houses if we did not come back from South Africa with an agreement for peace. And our soldiers are tired of fighting. Many are asking themselves, 'What am I fighting for?' And the leadership can't answer them."
The peace negotiations have already had a salutary effect in Burundi, where government and rebel forces have agreed to a fragile cease-fire and are tentatively working toward a transitional government.
Although Mbeki succeeded in persuading Rwanda to withdraw about 30,000 troops from Congo last summer, loosely knit militias are still rampant in border areas.
"That issue is not yet resolved," Nziratimano said. "The country is infested with militias, groups like the [Congolese] Mai-Mai militia and Interahamwe from Rwanda. Even those militia groups that had people at these negotiations don't necessarily represent members on the ground."
Peace negotiators say the task of rebuilding Congo's ruined economy will be difficult. Donor nations and nongovernmental organizations pledged $2.5 billion to a peaceful Congo. But even that might not be enough in a country where industry is at a near standstill and most foreign investors fled years ago. Annual per capita income is only $550, and the annual inflation rate is at 358%.
Diseases are also rampant. Malaria has returned to Congo River communities, and as of 1999, more than 1 million people had the human immunodeficiency virus in this country of 55 million.
"It's time we get our act together," M'Poko said. "Our real enemies are poverty and disease."