Rebels clashed on Friday with a pro-government militia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as a United Nations envoy held talks with embattled guerrilla chief Laurent Nkunda, whose leadership has been challenged by a top aide.
The National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels and Mai-Mai militia traded fire near Mabenga, about 90km north of Goma, the capital of Nord-Kivu province.
A UN official said Mabenga is the site of a centre for the Virunga National Park, which is now being used as a military base for the rebel fighters.
It marks the border between rebel-held territory and a zone designated ”neutral” where several pro-government forces are located.
Rebel spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Seraphin Mirindi said they had fought off a dawn attack by members of the Congolese Resistance Patriots, a component of the pro-government Mai-Mai.
Earlier on Friday, the spokesperson for the UN’s mission in Congo, Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, said there had been no sign of fighting between rival factions of the rebel group, which is in the grips of a leadership crisis.
UN mediator and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo met with Nkunda, the cashiered general who was the undisputed leader of the rebels until being challenged recently by one of his senior officers.
”Obasanjo came to Jomba to meet Nkunda,” CNDP spokesperson Bertrand Bisimwa said, referring to a town about 60km north of Goma.
CNDP chief of staff Bosco Ntaganda announced on Monday that Nkunda had been dismissed as leader, a claim quickly denied by Nkunda’s camp.
The split within their ranks has so far been confined to a war of words, but it has interfered with the talks scheduled between DRC President Joseph Kabila and CNDP rebel representatives.
A spokesperson for Ntaganda on Thursday challenged the legitimacy of the delegation that Nkunda chose to attend the UN-mediated peace talks in Nairobi.
But Ntaganda himself said he would pursue peace negotiations with Kinshasa and appeared to indicate he would back the delegation if it brought peace.
The CNDP force of about 5 000 troops controls large areas of Nord-Kivu following an offensive against the poorly equipped government army.
The offensive displaced more than a quarter of a million people and sparked a humanitarian crisis. — Sapa-AFP