Former rebels and soldiers tore off their old armbands Monday in a symbolic gesture to mark the formal start of training for Congo's new army, which is meant to bring old foes together after five years of war.
The official inauguration took place in the eastern town of Kisangani, which will be the base for a new 3,700-strong government brigade made up of former fighters from the vast central African nation's two largest rebel groups and soldiers from the old army.
Congolese authorities promised to deploy the troops to the lawless eastern Ituri province -- where human rights groups have accused the Congolese government, Uganda and Rwanda of backing rival militias -- within three months. Some U.N. officials said however it was likely to take longer.
The new brigade was made up of former fighters from the Rwandan-backed RCD-Goma rebel movement, the Ugandan-backed rebel MLC and soldiers loyal to the former government.
Democratic Republic of Congo's new army was formed in October under the terms of a peace deal to end five years of war which claimed over three million lives in Africa's third largest country, mainly from hunger and disease.
"The brigade will be deployed after training into Ituri province," Congo's Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Ondekane told Reuters. "The government finds that the plan to deploy in six months is too long. We plan to send them in three months."
Although war in the former Belgian colony was declared over in July, rival Hema and Lendu militias still regularly kill civilians as they battle to control land in mineral-rich Ituri.
Some 4,500 United Nations peacekeepers have also deployed in Ituri. U.N. officials said they expected the new brigade's deployment to take six months.
"There won't be a brigade until June. They will take some of their best troops, train them and get them into the field," William Swing, the top U.N. diplomat in Congo, told Reuters.
The Kisangani brigade will be a test case for the government as it seeks to create other units for deployment elsewhere in the east, such as in the Kivu provinces where roughly 15,000 Rwandan Hutu fighters are still believed to be based.
The Belgian government will take the lead in training the new military, supplying logistical aid to construct the brigade's camp in a rusted timber yard in Kisangani.
The United States, Britain, France, South Africa, the Netherlands and Canada are expected to be the principle international partners behind Belgium, helping with logistics and material.
"Belgium will take the lead in the operation - but it is necessary for Congo to have not only Belgium's help, but also that of other countries," said Belgium's Defense Minister Andre Flahaut, who attended Monday's ceremony.