Congo rebels threaten to advance on UN zones


Congolese Tutsi rebels threatened today to advance into UN-monitored buffer zones in eastern Congo after refusing to sign a declaration ending hostilities with the government, the rebels and mediators said.

Following several days of UN-backed talks in Nairobi, Kenya, the rebels led by renegade General Laurent Nkunda also declined to recommit to their own unilaterally declared ceasefire in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.

This raised fears of a collapse of a fragile truce and of a renewal of fighting which had already driven more than a quarter of a million civilians from their homes since late August, triggering a humanitarian emergency in North Kivu.

Mr Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) accused government soldiers and their allies, which include Rwandan Hutu rebels, of sending troops and militia into disengagement zones intended to separate the belligerents.

"This is not behaviour that we will tolerate for very long," Bertrand Bisimwa, a spokesman for Mr Nkunda said.

"If these zones are not respected, we have the right to go back on our decision. We will be obliged to retake them to secure them," he added.

UN peacekeepers in Congo said they had detected no Congolese army movements into the buffer zones.

After launching their offensive in late August, Nkunda's battle-hardened fighters routed President Joseph Kabila's army and captured swathes of territory in North Kivu before declaring a unilateral ceasefire in late October. This ended major battles

with government forces but the CNDP continued to skirmish with pro-government Mai-Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu rebels.

The talks in Nairobi aimed at cementing the ceasefire and forging a lasting peace appeared to be floundering.

"The CNDP refused to sign a joint declaration of cessation of hostilities with the government of the DRC," UN and African Union mediators said in a statement today.

"Furthermore, the CNDP has declined to recommit itself to its own existing unilateral ceasefire declaration," they said, although Congo's government reaffirmed its own November18th truce.

The peace talks were due to resume on January 7th.

The mediators led by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Tanzanian president Benjemin Mkapa said they had checked the rebel accusations and had found no evidence of Congolese government army incursions into the buffer zones.

"Nothing has changed. The situation remains as before. There is no [Congolese army] movement," Kevin Kennedy, a spokesman for Congo's UN peacekeeping mission (Monuc), which is charged with monitoring the disengagement zones, said.

CNDP spokesman Bisimwa dismissed this as "lies".

"In some places they are within 150 metres of our positions ... There is a risk of confrontation," he said.

The United Nations fears that unless a political settlement can be reached the North Kivu conflict could escalate into a repeat of a 1998-2003 war which sucked in neighbouring states and devastated the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony.