Rebels call for ceasefire talks with Congo amid clashes

REBEL leader Laurent Nkunda yesterday called for ceasefire talks with the Democratic Republic of Congo government after meeting a UN peace envoy even as new clashes broke out between his fighters and the army.

The renegade general held talks with Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, a few hours after the latest fighting in the strife-torn east of the country near the strategic town of Kanyabayonga.

The first clashes came early yesterday and carried on into the early afternoon after a brief lull as the rebels hit back at government artillery barrages, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman for the UN Mission in DR Congo (MONUC), said.

Nkunda’s group blamed government forces for the new fighting. But Nkunda said after meeting Obasanjo in rebel-held territory: “Today is a great day for us, because we were losing many men and now we have a message of peace. We should work with this mission. We agreed to open humanitarian corridors to support the process.”

UN officials warned that the plight of an estimated 250,000 people displaced by fighting was becoming increasingly desperate.

It was unclear if Nkunda was referring to losses among his rebel forces or on both sides, after weeks of combat during which he has seized control of much of Nord-Kivu province and surrounded its capital Goma.

Obasanjo and Nkunda met in the village of Jomba near the Rwandan border, about 80km north-east of Goma, capital of Nord-Kivu province.

“I know now what he wants,” said Obasanjo after the talks. “I know that a ceasefire is like dancing tango: it cannot be done by one only.”

President Joseph Kabila has to date rejected Nkunda’s call for direct talks.

Obasanjo is the first foreign envoy to have officially met Nkunda since the latest conflict peaked in recent weeks.

The Nigerian, appointed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon last week, arrived in the country on Friday and has already met Kabila and other top officials.

Obasanjo arrived at Jomba by helicopter from Goma. The two men shook hands warmly.

Nkunda, who was a general in the Congolese army before turning against the government, had changed out of his military uniform into a light grey suit with a white shirt and red tie. Obasanjo was in traditional Nigerian dress.

The former Nigerian president, who was also once a general, briefly inspected Nkunda’s soldiers before the two men walked hand-in-hand into a small building to begin their talks.

Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for the Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) blamed government forces for the latest clashes, saying they had opened fire with long-range artillery and tanks.

MONUC, which had sent out “a substantial patrol with armoured vehicles,” was treating six wounded government soldiers, said Dietrich.

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