/ 10 November 2008

Nkunda warns Africa not to send troops

Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said on Monday he would fight African peacekeepers if they backed government troops against him, as more regional states joined efforts to try to end the conflict.

African leaders from the south of the continent and the Great Lakes region have offered peacekeepers if necessary to try to stabilise east Democratic Republic of Congo, where recent fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The upsurge in fighting in DRC’s North Kivu province bordering Rwanda and the growing involvement of neighbouring states in moves to end it have raised fears of a repeat of the 1998 to 2003 DRC war that sucked in armies from the region.

Countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said after a regional summit in South Africa on Sunday the group would send military advisers to help the government of DRC President Joseph Kabila.

SADC would send a peacekeeping force to east Congo ”if and when necessary”, its executive secretary Tomaz Salamao said.

Nkunda, whose Tutsi rebels are battling Congolese government soldiers (FARDC) and their Rwandan Hutu rebel (FDLR) and Mai-Mai militia allies, said he would welcome African peacekeepers if they were coming as an impartial force to pacify North Kivu.

But, speaking to Reuters by telephone from eastern Congo, he added: ”If they come in and fight alongside the FARDC and the FDLR, they will be weakened, they will share the same shame as the DRC government.”.

”If SADC engages like this, they will have made a mistake … I am ready to fight them,” Nkunda said.

The United Nations, which already has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17 000 strong, in DRC, is seeking up to 3 000 extra troops to reinforce its operations there. It says its existing force is thinly stretched across a country the size of Western Europe where armed groups abound.

It was not immediately clear whether the proposed African peacekeepers would operate under UN mandate or separately.

The North Kivu fighting has already taken on a regional dimension as Rwanda, which has twice invaded DRC before, officially to fight Hutu rebels there, is accused by Kinshasa of supporting Nkunda. Kigali denies this.

A summit of Great Lakes leaders including Rwandan President Paul Kagame called in Nairobi on Friday for a ceasefire and a political settlement in North Kivu, but said that they could send peacekeepers if required.

Commenting on Sunday’s SADC offer of troops, Rwandan Foreign Minister Rosemary Museminali told Reuters: ”When we left the meeting in Nairobi, the direction was that there should be ceasefire and a political solution.”

Angola denies troops in DRC
DRC’s government has again called on southern neighbour Angola, which backed it during the 1998 to 2003 war, for help.

The weak and chaotic Congolese national army has collapsed in the face of determined advances by Nkunda’s battle-hardened guerrilla force, which is estimated to total around 4,000.

The appearance in North Kivu of more disciplined, Portuguese-speaking soldiers on the government side has fuelled speculation Angola may have already sent troops to east DRC.

But an Angolan Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Luanda denied this on Monday. ”Right now there are no Angolan troops fighting in Congo and I don’t know if they will ever go. This is a complex negotiation with many different players involved and Angola will only act as part of that joint effort,” he said.

Despite calls from both the UN and African leaders for a ceasefire in North Kivu, sporadic fighting continued at the weekend, hampering humanitarian efforts to help hundreds of thousands of civilians seeking shelter, food and medical help.

UN peacekeepers reported clashes on Sunday between Nkunda’s rebels and government forces and their Mai-Mai militia allies north of Rutshuru. Nkunda’s Tutsis also fought Rwandan Hutu rebels at Ngungu, 60km west of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, a UN military spokesman said.

Humanitarian agencies have stepped up their operations to deliver assistance to more than 200 000 displaced civilians sheltering immediately around and to the north of Goma. – Reuters