(Washington, DC) - The two African leaders at a Congressional prayer breakfast this morning are fighting a war that has caused massive civilian casualities, and U.S. officials meeting with them should make that the focus of their dialogue, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda both command troops in the war in the Congo, where as many as 1.7 million civilians have died through combat-related casualities as well as through deprivation of water, food, and health care. The war, underway since 1998, has involved six governments, three major rebel movements, and a host of smaller armed opposition groups.

"Among the many shifting alliances and changes of position in this war, one thing is perfectly clear: civilians have borne the brunt of the suffering," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Bush administration should be sending a straightforward message to Kabila and Kagame that abuses of civilians must stop, and stop now."

Kagame and the Rwandan troops first made war in the Congo as allies of Laurent Kabila, the recently assassinated president. But in a second war now being fought, the two leaders took opposite sides. The meeting in Washington is thought to be the first time Kagame and the younger Kabila have come face-to-face since the new president succeeded his father.

Both parties to the war have meddled in local ethnic-based conflicts, often delivering the arms and military training that made such combat even more lethal. "U.S. officials should warn the belligerents that playing on local divisions will only spur further hatred and killing," said Takirambudde.

The U.N. tried twice to investigate war crimes committed during the First Congo war but was blocked by the late president Laurent Kabila. Subsequently the Congolese government indicated its willingness to facilitate a new inquiry but the United Nations has done nothing. Human Rights Watch has called for a new international investigation into the massive violations of international humanitarian law in the second as well as in the first Congo war.