/ 16 October 2007

UN urges Congo rebels to disband as deadline passes

The United Nations made a last-ditch appeal on Monday for rebel Congolese soldiers to rejoin the national army after their leader ignored a government deadline to disband his forces in the east.

Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila had given renegade General Laurent Nkunda until Monday to send his Tutsi fighters in eastern North Kivu province to army integration centres or see them forcibly disarmed.

But the rebel leader, whose recent battles with government troops have forced thousands of civilians from their homes, ignored the ultimatum and called for more talks. United Nations officials reported sporadic fighting at two locations on Monday.

Amid widespread expectations of an imminent all-out government military offensive against Nkunda, Kabila and key ministers discussed the eastern revolt with UN officials and foreign ambassadors in the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.

”We’re once again appealing for all of the dissidents to come to the army integration centres without delay and without conditions,” William Swing, head of the 17 000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, told reporters after the talks.

Congolese officials refused to say if an offensive would be launched immediately. But they suggested some leeway might be given to allow Nkunda’s fighters to come out of the bush.

”We think we’re giving peace a chance,” Defence Minister Chikez Diemu said. Since the ultimatum was announced, more than 150 rebels had quit Nkunda’s ranks, officials said.

”Kabila seems prepared to give Nkunda another 10 days to comply with the government’s demands before new operations are launched,” a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.

The UN military spokesperson in North Kivu, Major PK Tiwari, said Nkunda’s forces were reported to have fired on an army post at Kalengera and there was a further exchange of fire at Choka — both places were about 45km north of Goma.

Kabila would visit the United States next week, diplomats said. The South African, British, French and Belgian ambassadors and the acting US mission head took part in the Goma talks.

Time running out

Kabila, who vowed to pacify all of his vast country after winning elections in the war-scarred former Belgian colony last year, has made clear he is running out of patience with Nkunda, who has led a three-year rebellion in North Kivu.

Nkunda says he is defending thre DRC’s Tutsi ethnic community against attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels he says are supported by Kabila’s government and army. Kabila denies such support exists.

Kabila’s spokesperson Kudura Kasongo said the president wanted a lasting, peaceful solution, ”but we won’t wait for ever”.

Swing said the international community wanted to see a swift end to the conflict in North Kivu, both through the disbanding of Nkunda’s fighters and the withdrawal from east DRC of the Rwandan Hutu rebels the general sees as his sworn enemies.

The European Union said military force alone would not solve the problem and could upset regional stability.

”The EU emphasises that an exclusively military approach … will only worsen the situation, particularly in humanitarian terms,” the EU presidency said in a statement.

UN relief agencies and foreign governments fear an all-out offensive against Nkunda will sharply worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in North Kivu, where about 370 000 people have fled fighting in the province this year. – Reuters