A ceasefire called by Congo rebels appeared to be unravelling today.
Rebel warlord Laurent Nkunda reported fresh fighting with the army and repeated a threat to march on the capital, Kinshasa.
Nkunda said militia-backed army forces attacked rebel positions before dawn around the town of Nyanzale in the eastern North Kivu province.
He said his fighters were attacked three times, adding that they “have a right to defend themselves”.
The violence is another blow to a fragile unilateral ceasefire Nkunda declared on October 29 as his fighters reached the outskirts of the main provincial city of Goma, suddenly halting a lightening advance that forced Congo’s army into a humiliating retreat.
Nkunda also reiterated a threat to march on the faraway capital. "This is a treasonous government that is betraying the people of Congo and that is why we will continue to fight until we reach Kinshasa,'' he said.
Low-level fighting has ground on in Congo for years, but clashes intensified in August and have since driven around 250,000 million people from their homes.
Nkunda is demanding direct negotiations with President Joseph Kabila’s government, which says it will only meet with all militia groups in the region, not just with Nkunda.
Dozens of militia groups operate in the remote terraced valleys and hills of eastern Congo, a lawless region that the government and a 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission have struggled to bring under control for years.
Among the armed groups are pro-government militias known as the Mai Mai, and ethnic Hutu insurgents from Rwanda who fled to Congo after helping carry out Rwanda’s bloody 1994 genocide.
Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon are to attend a UN-backed African Union summit tomorrow in Nairobi, Kenya. Mr Kagame is believed to wield strong influence over Nkunda’s Tutsi-led rebels.
The conflict in eastern Congo is fuelled by festering ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo’s civil wars from 1996-2002, which drew neighbouring countries in a rush to plunder Congo’s mineral wealth.
Nkunda, who defected from Congo’s army in 2004, claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis. Critics say Nkunda has exaggerated the threat against Tutsis and is a puppet of neighbouring Rwanda.