November 16, 2008
By Finbarr O’Reilly
Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda agreed on Sunday to support a U.N. peace plan for eastern Congo, including a body to oversee a ceasefire, but fighting between the army and rebels raged on in one zone.
After talks with United Nations special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo at Jomba in Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, Nkunda said he had agreed to three requests from him — to respect a ceasefire, open a humanitarian corridor to aid refugees, and support the U.N. peace initiative.
“We agree,” Nkunda told reporters in French.
But he had asked Obasanjo, a former Nigerian head of state, to tell Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s government to also respect a suspension of military hostilities.
“We support his mission … he has got support from the international community … we are behind him and we are going to do our part so we can get on with this peace,” Nkunda, wearing a grey suit and carrying a cane topped with a silver eagle’s head, said in other comments in English.
Obasanjo met Nkunda at his home village in the foothills of the Virunga mountains, close to the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. After their talks, the two briefly danced with rebel fighters and children outside the church compound where they met.
But as they met, U.N. peacekeepers reported heavy fighting on Sunday between Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels and Congo’s army near the village of Ndeko, 110 km (70 miles) north of the provincial capital Goma.
The U.N. troubleshooter, who held talks on Saturday with Congolese President Joseph Kabila, is seeking to prevent the fighting in North Kivu from escalating into a repeat of a wider 1998-2003 Congo war that sucked in six neighbouring states.
Obasanjo, who flew back to the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, said the talks with Nkunda went “extremely well”.
“Nkunda wants to maintain a ceasefire but it’s like dancing the tango. You can’t do it alone,” Obasanjo said.
He said later in Goma Nkunda had agreed to a tripartite committee to monitor ceasefire violations, but on the condition that the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo was not involved. Nkunda says the U.N. peacekeepers are biased against him.
Weeks of combat between Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels and government troops and their militia allies have displaced around a quarter of a million civilians, creating what aid agencies call a “catastrophic” humanitarian situation in east Congo.
ROCKET AND MORTAR BATTLE
U.N. military spokesman Lt-Col Jean-Paul Dietrich said the Ndeko combat did not help the peace process: “The army is firing rockets. The CNDP is using mortars. It’s not a good sign if they continue to fight while the special envoy is holding talks”.
Nkunda played down the latest fighting, saying it was “not a problem” and he had contacted the government to try to end it.
The United Nations said it was impossible to say who had started the clashes and at least six government soldiers had been wounded.
The roots of the North Kivu conflict stem from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when extremist Hutu militias killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus before fleeing into Congo.
That led to two wars and a humanitarian crisis that killed more than five million people, mostly from hunger and disease.
In 2004, Nkunda rejected peace deals that ended the last war. He accuses Kabila of arming and using a Rwandan Hutu rebel group, the FDLR, which includes perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, to fight with the weak and chaotic Congolese army.
The Congolese president accuses Rwanda, whose soldiers fought in Congo’s last war, ostensibly to hunt down the Hutu militia, of supporting Nkunda’s rebellion.
Nkunda spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa blamed the government for Sunday’s fighting. “The army attacked us this morning,” he said.
But he insisted this would not derail the peace talks. “He (Obasanjo) is not blind. He will see who is responsible for the clashes. While he talks peace, the government attacks us.”
The Congolese army was not available for comment.
Nkunda initially took up arms saying he was fighting to defend fellow Tutsis in Congo from attack by the Rwandan Hutu FDLR. But, after marching to the gates of Goma last month, he is now calling for unconditional direct talks with the president.
Kabila has so far rejected negotiations.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Kinshasa, Emmanuel Braun in Jomba and Hereward Holland in Goma)