White House and State Department officials confirmed that the Obama administration has dispatched the top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnny Carson, to Central Africa this weekend to help negotiate an end the latest crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I can tell you that Assistant Secretary Carson is in the region working on this issue," White House Spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters. "The president is updated through the Presidential Daily Briefing on the developments there in the Congo and is obviously very concerned about the violence and the loss of life." .
Last week the rebel force M23 seized Eastern Congo's financial capital, Goma, throwing the country and the region into chaos and uncertainty. For months the group has been advancing on the eastern part of the country, exchanging fire with the Congolese army and committing atrocities such as rape and murder in its campaign. With evidence of involvement from regional neighbors Rwanda and Uganda, the crisis is threatening to turn into a war, similar to the last Congolese war, which lasted over a decade and killed more than an estimated three million people.
Aid organizations such as Oxfam and UNICEF say the latest crisis with M23 has already caused nearly 100,000 people to flee their homes. Other humanitarian groups are struggling to get supplies and food in to help the nearly half a million Congolese who were already living in camps in the area, displaced from decades of violence.
The Obama administration has come under fire for what some have called a lack of engagement on the issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did meet with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congo's President Joseph Kabila at the UN General Assembly Meeting in New York in September to urge them to find a peaceful solution to not only M23, but the underlying issues that were fueling the rebel group. The administration also suspended $200,000 in military aid to Rwanda, the staunch U.S. ally, who United Nations investigators say is funding the rebel group. But human rights groups say last week's actions by M23 are proof that not enough has been done diplomatically.
"The US government's silence on Rwandan military support to the M23 rebels can no longer be justified given the overwhelming evidence of Rwanda's role and the imminent threat to civilians around Goma," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch in a statement. "The US government should support urgent sanctions against Rwandan officials who are backing M23 fighters responsible for serious abuses."
The Rwandan government continues to deny it is supporting the rebel group. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed that Carson will meet with President Kagame while in the region, but she declined to explicitly name Rwandan as a supporter of the militia.
"We've been very clear that we want to see all outside support for M23, for any of these groups, come to an end," said Nuland, who also said Secretary Carson is working with leaders from Rwanda, Congo and Uganda to negotiate a cease-fire and withdrawal of the rebels before the violence escalates.
"We want to see a cease-fire. We want to see a pullback to July lines," said Nuland. "We want to see a sustainable process of negotiation and discussion of the status of the eastern Congo with all the stakeholders."
Actor Ben Affleck, who founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, a humanitarian organization working in Eastern Congo with local leaders for peaceful, long-term solutions to the country's problems, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week, that the administration could be applying more pressure to all the parties involved to bring peace to the region.
"We have a lot of levers there. We can engage in the kind of high-level, shuttle diplomacy that you saw be so effective in Gaza," said Affleck, who pointed out that the United States contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the 17,000 UN peace keeping force in the country. "With the United States when we had issues that were important to us, we sent John Kerry to Sudan, we sent Bill Richardson, we sent - I think it was North Korea - General Powell, folks like that. That's a level of engagement that I think we need to step up to."
ABC's Bazi Kanani contributed to this report.