/ 15 October 2007

DRC rebels reject government ultimatum

The volatile east of the Democratic Republic of Congo braced for renewed fighting on Sunday after rebels refused to give up arms despite a government ultimatum to disarm or face a fresh offensive.

The Congolese government has given forces under renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda until Monday to disarm and either join the army under a reintegration process known as ”brassage”, or return to civilian life.

The rebels said on Sunday they would not give up their weapons without negotiation.

Kinshasa has refused to negotiate with the rebels, who have been fighting government troops in the eastern Nord-Kivu region all week.

Meanwhile, DRC President Joseph Kabila arrived in the region’s capital Goma with a delegation of ministers on Sunday to assess the military and humanitarian situation there.

The UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo (Monuc) urged in a statement on Sunday for ”all dissident troops” to join the reintegration process, adding that the DRC government had ”already made the necessary arrangements, including reception sites and transport”.

The rebels said they agreed in principle but were afraid of being attacked.

”We agree on the principle of integrating our forces with the army, but not in any old way,” said Nkunda spokesperson Rene Abandi from Nord-Kivu.

”We will not give up our weapons while [government soldiers] continue to attack us. We will respond to any attack,” he said, adding that the government had ignored calls for a ceasefire.

On Wednesday, Nkunda proposed a truce after at least 85 of his fighters died in heavy clashes, and offered 500 of his men for demobilisation. The move was greeted with caution in Kinshasa.

Kabila’s visit to the region was unscheduled and it was unclear how long he would stay.

”The president has come to assess the situation in Nord-Kivu, both the military and the humanitarian aspects,” said Kabila’s spokesperson Kudura Kasongo, declining to give further details.

But rebel spokesperson Abandi accused Kabila of instead wanting ”to finish things by force”, accusing him of reinforcing the army’s equipment.

Defence Minister Diemu Chikez said from Goma that 157 rebel troops had agreed to integrate in the regular army and that ”they had deserted Nkunda’s ranks in the past few days”.

Since September 24, Nkunda’s men have battled at least 15 000 government troops in Nord-Kivu in breach of a September 6 ceasefire mediated by Monuc.

Nkunda claims to be protecting the minority local Congolese ethnic Tutsi population and accuses the DRC army of colluding with rival Hutu rebels hiding out in the area since the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, UN organisations in Kinshasa have warned of a humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of people flee the fighting and flood into already overcrowded camps.

On Sunday, the UN called on both sides to respect international laws and human rights norms.

”Our engagement is clear: we must first protect populations at all costs, and against all parties,” said Monuc force commander Babacar Gaye.

The fighting has uprooted more than 370 000 people from their homes in less than a year, according to UN estimates, bringing to 750 000 the total number of displaced people in the restive eastern province.

Mandated to support the government troops, Monuchas deployed 4 500

out of its 17 600 troops in Nord Kivu. – Sapa-AFP