/ 4 March 2008

DRC rebels rejoin truce panel after massacre row

Congolese rebels loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda have said they will return to a ceasefire commission monitoring a rocky January peace deal.

The United Nations and Western governments brokered the January deal in the hope of establishing a lasting peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s turbulent east, where rebel and militia violence has persisted long after the formal end of the 1998 to 2003 war.

Delegates from Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) suspended participation in the ad hoc commission on February 23 in protest at United Nations accusations that they massacred civilians during the peace talks in January.

The rebels said in a statement released late on Monday that they had decided to return following successful talks with two special envoys from the United States and the European Union.

”The decision to resume active participation … came as a result of guarantees offered by both personalities, particularly that of setting up, in the near future, an independent commission of inquiry for the said allegations,” it said.

UN report

A confidential UN human rights investigators’ report which became public last month said Tutsi fighters loyal to Nkunda killed at least 30 Hutu civilians on January 16 and 17 by shooting them, hacking them with machetes, or beating them with hammers.

It said the killings happened near Kalonge, about 100km west of Goma, capital of the North Kivu province, where Nkunda has led an on-off rebellion since 2004.

At the time of the killings, CNDP delegates were in Goma for peace talks that led to a ceasefire accord between government soldiers, CNDP fighters, and local Mai Mai militia on January 23.

Nkunda denied the report’s accusations against his men and called for an independent investigation into the killings.

Though Nkunda loyalists never pulled out of the ceasefire agreement, their decision to suspend participation in the monitoring commission was a blow to an already shaky process.

Despite the creation of about 30 UN peacekeeping bases in a buffer zone between the warring factions, clashes have been reported on an almost daily basis between Nkunda loyalists, traditional Mai Mai militia, and government forces.

About 450 000 North Kivu residents fled fighting in the province in the year leading up to last month’s peace deal, adding to one of the world’s worst war-related humanitarian crises, which has killed about four million people since 1998.

The conflict has its roots in neighbouring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide in which Hutu militants slaughtered around 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Nkunda says the rebellion he has led since 2004 seeks to protect eastern DRC’s ethnic Tutsi minority against the Rwandan Hutu rebels he says are backed by the DRC’s government. – Reuters