Congo rebel leader wants direct talks with government

As violence eases, envoys dispatched to offer assistance

By Michelle Faul
Associated Press / October 31, 2008
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GOMA, Congo - With a cease-fire appearing to halt most fighting, a rebel leader said yesterday that he wanted direct talks with the Congo government on ending violence in the region, and envoys from the United States and United Nations were dispatched to help set up negotiations.

Sporadic gunfire could still be heard last night in Goma, the provincial capital of eastern Congo, but the city was calm for much of the day.

That was in sharp contrast to Wednesday, when tens of thousands of residents, refugees, and government soldiers fled in a chaotic torrent ahead of advancing rebels. When the sun went down, drunk soldiers pillaged and raped in Goma, killing at least nine people in their homes, according to UN Radio Okapi.

"We want peace for people in the region," rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said by telephone after halting his advance on Goma and calling a unilateral cease-fire.

Nkunda also wanted to discuss his objections to a $9 billion deal that gives China access to vast mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway.

He also wants the urgent disarmament of a Rwandan Hutu militia that he contends works with the government and preys on his minority Tutsi people.

"It's not acceptable for government soldiers to be fighting alongside genociders," Nkunda said. "We want peace for people in the region."

Nkunda launched a low-level rebellion three years ago contending that Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.

He alleges the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis in 1994's genocide.

Congo has charged Nkunda himself with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture, and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.

Rights groups have also criticized government forces for atrocities and widespread looting in Congo.

Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to reignite the back-to-back wars that roiled Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in eight African nations. President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in the first elections in 40 years, has struggled ever since to contain the bloody insurgency in the east.

The United Nations has only 6,000 of its 17,000-strong Congo peacekeepers in the east because of unrest in other provinces. It says the force is badly overstretched and urgently needs reinforcement, but European nations were sharply divided yesterday over whether to send troops to Congo.

The top US envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, arrived in Kinshasa to help find a political solution for Congo. She planned to meet with Kabila, and possibly later travel to Rwanda to meet with President Paul Kagame.

Nkunda, who commands about 10,000 rebels, said he wants to take Goma, a border post with Rwanda. But so far he has heeded UN demands to stay out of the city.

The situation in Goma was calm yesterday. Government soldiers in trucks and UN peacekeepers in armored cars patrolled the city. Almost all shops were shuttered and schools stayed closed, but people thronged the streets, discussing the crisis and buying vegetables by the road.

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