/ 7 September 2007

Rebel chief accuses DRC army of breaking ceasefire

Renegade Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) General Laurent Nkunda said on Friday the Congolese army had attacked his position, breaking a fragile ceasefire negotiated by United Nations mediators in eastern DRC.

”I have told Monuc [the United Nations mission in DRC] that we were attacked this morning [Friday] in Rutshuru. They say they are in contact with the Congolese army to ask them to stop,” Nkunda told Reuters by telephone.

UN mediators announced the ceasefire on Thursday after nearly two weeks of fighting in volatile North Kivu province in which rebels loyal to Nkunda have battled UN-backed government troops, forcing thousands of refugees to flee.

Nkunda said he believed the army attack could be stopped and added he was still ready to respect the ceasefire. ”We want to negotiate, but it seems for them [the army] it is a strategy to buy time to reinforce,” he said.

Asked about the reported fighting, the Congolese army’s commander of operations in North Kivu, Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, said: ”We’ve just heard about it, we’re checking it”.

The latest clash in the Rutshuru district took place in the Virunga National Park, a sanctuary for rare mountain gorillas, which has suffered repeated attacks by eastern Congolese rebels and militias.

Robert Muir of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which helps protect the gorillas, said Virunga park rangers had reported hearing a bombardment from heavy weapons between Bukima and Bikenge. ”It’s very intense,” he said.

Thursday’s ceasefire deal was announced as thousands of Tutsi fighters loyal to Nkunda appeared to have turned the tide on government forces, and were pressing ahead towards the provincial capital, Goma.

The worsening fighting in eastern DRC has been a setback to efforts by President Joseph Kabila, who won landmark elections late last year, to achieve lasting peace across the former Belgian colony, scarred by a 1998 to 2003 war.

Nkunda, who first led a revolt in 2004 but signed a short-lived peace deal in January, says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi people in eastern DRC against attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels he says are backed by Kabila’s government.

The renegade general said he had no direct contact with the government but would accept an outside mediator to negotiate.

”If the international community gets involved I think we can find a lasting peace,” he said. — Reuters