The Democratic Republic of Congo’s government today refused rebel leader Laurent Nkunda’s demand for direct talks to solve the crisis in eastern Kivu province, where tens of thousands of desperate refugees were receiving international aid.
A two-month surge in Nkunda’s Tutsi rebellion near the Rwanda border has abated, with his troops entrenched around the province’s capital, Goma.
But a rebel spokesman alleged today that Angola and Zimbabwe were mobilising troops to back government forces against the rebels, triggering concern about possible expansion of the conflict.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa offered no proof of the accusation, which Zimbabwe denies. Angola, a long-time ally of DR Congo’s government, has not yet commented. DR Congo appealed last week for Angola’s help.
The conflict is fuelled by tensions left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda. The 1998-2002 war drew in a half-dozen countries. Angola and Zimbabwe fought for DR Congo in exchange for access to copper and diamond concessions. Rwanda and Uganda backed rival rebel factions in the mineral-rich east, and also fought each other.
Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, said the groundwork “is being laid for a generalised war in the region, and we will fight because we are obliged to defend ourselves,” Bisimwa told The Associated Press.
“Foreign troops (are) preparing to make war against us.”
He claimed some Angolan troops were already in the lakeside city of Bukavu, another provincial capital south of Goma. Violence around Goma in recent weeks displaced nearly quarter million people.
A UN official said no Angolans were in DR Congo and he was only aware of “talk” of an Angolan deployment but that no decision had been made.
Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga dismissed the allegations and said the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force already in the country would suffice. “Why would we want to go to Congo?” he said. “We’ve got our problems of our own.”
In the capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende said President Laurent Kabila’s administration was “open for dialogue” with all rebel and militia groups in the region – but would not meet Nkunda’s group alone.
“Apart from dialogue, all that remains is war,” rebel spokesman Bisimwa said.
Nkunda declared a unilateral cease-fire October 29 and so far it has held. He claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after the Rwandan genocide.
In New York, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last night he would meet DR Congo’s Kabila and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame for talks by early next week. Rwanda has enormous influence over Nkunda.
“The conflict along the Rwanda and Congolese border has gone on too long and (with) catastrophic consequences,” Ban said. “We need peace (and) an end to fighting so that the region’s people can enjoy a measure of stability and prosperity.”
Earlier today, the UN accused Rwanda of firing tanks or artillery into Congo at the height of fighting last week, spurring fears the war might already have spread. Rwanda denies its forces are involved.
The African Union’s president is also expected to convene an urgent regional summit in Nairobi or elsewhere in Africa sometime in November to deal with the surge in fighting in eastern Congo, Ban said.
Aid groups began distributing water and high-energy biscuits to some of the quarter million refugees who have been struggling through the countryside with what belongings they could carry.
In Kibati, a camp for the displaced north of Goma, aid workers from Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps distributed the food to thousands of hungry children lined up in the hot sun.
Yesterday, refugees there had complained that the first humanitarian convoy to arrive in week brought no food – only soap and plastic jerry cans.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was distributing 54,000 litres of drinking water a day to people in Kibati with the help of the Congolese Red Cross, and would start handing out food to around 60,000 in the camp tomorrow.
The World Food Programme says it will start distributing a 10-day food ration to over 135,000 people in six camps around Goma tomorrow.