Rebels agree to meet governor in volatile east DR Congo

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Tutsi-led rebels reversed course and agreed to meet with the governor of conflict-torn Nord-Kivu province.

4 December 2008

GOMA - Chances for talks between rebels and a governor in embattled eastern Democratic Republic of Congo improved Wednesday, even as hopes waned for sending an EU force to help secure peace in the region.

Tutsi-led rebels reversed course and agreed to meet with the governor of conflict-torn Nord-Kivu province, Julien Paluku, after earlier rejecting talks on grounds he did not represent the central government in Kinshasa.

"We are ready to receive him for an information mission," said Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda.

So far, however, the rebels have refrained from talking about full-fledged negotiations on the conflict.

"Our problem is that the option of negotiations was distorted by the government, which refused to give the governor a mandate to negotiate," Bisimwa said.

Paluku responded by saying he "had absolutely no problem" with going to rebel territory for talks with Nkunda.

Spokesmen for two of the largest ethnic groups -- the Nande, representing half of Nord-Kivu's population and the Hutu, accounting for 20 percent -- have backed the government's stance for larger talks incorporating different factions from across the troubled region.

Nkunda, however, has been holding out for direct talks with the government of President Joseph Kabila.

Months of fighting pitting Nkunda's rebels against government troops and various militia groups have displaced some 250,000 people in the eastern Congo and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

But expectations that the European Union might send an interim force to bolster 5,000 UN peacekeepers in Nord-Kivu dimmed as several European officials said immediate prospects of doing so were unlikely.

"For the moment, the question of deploying troops is not being discussed," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said.

Belgium and France, who have been pushing for such a force, also acknowledged the idea lacked leadership and support among the 27-nation bloc.

"My feeling is that it is not possible to raise a European operation for the moment," said Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht of Belgium, the former colonial power of the vast central African country.

Still, the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, remained optimistic a European force might eventually take shape.

"MONUC continues to hope that a European Union force will be sent because we really need coverage in the interim," until 3,000 more UN troops approved by the UN Security Council arrive, said MONUC spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai.

Battle lines shifted during the day as Rwandan Hutu militia retook a key axis previously held by Nkunda's rebels spanning the towns of Ishasha, Nyamilima and Kinyadoni, UN and rebel sources said.

"They organised meetings with the population. They have installed new administrative authorities. They have retaken control of these entities and claim they will ensure security," rebel spokesman Bisimwa said.

The Tutsi-led rebels claim the Hutu militia - some of whom participated in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda - back the Congolese government in the tangled conflict that also involves the pro-government Mai Mai militia.

MONUC's military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, confirmed the Hutu militia's return to areas they previously occupied and the retreat of Nkunda's fighters.

The two sides traded gunfire south of the axis and roughly 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Goma, which is surrounded by Nkunda's men.

MONUC also raised concerns about another area in east Congo -- the district of Ituri, where Congolese militias have been ramping up their activities for the past two months.

The militias have stepped up recruitments and fighters appear to be buying weapons in neighbouring Uganda, Dietrich said.

Dietrich said there were hundreds of armed fighters in the area who "continue to threaten the population."


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