By Michelle Faul
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
GOMA, Congo, Nov. 4 -- Congo's government on Tuesday rejected a rebel leader's demand for direct talks to resolve a conflict that has left hundreds of thousands of people hungry and homeless in a mineral-rich eastern province.
President Joseph Kabila's administration is "open for dialogue" with all rebel and militia groups in the region but will not meet directly with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's group, government spokesman Lambert Mende said in Kinshasa, the capital.
The rebels warned that the government's refusal could lead to more fighting.
"Apart from dialogue, all that remains is war," said rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa. "If they won't negotiate with us, then they leave us little choice. We will start fighting again, and we will continue until we take Kinshasa."
Bisimwa asserted that Angola and Zimbabwe were mobilizing troops to back government forces against the rebels.
An envoy from Zimbabwe, Bright Matonga, dismissed those allegations and noted the presence of a 17,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo.
"Why would we want to go to Congo? We've got our problems of our own," he said.
Angola, a longtime ally of Congo's government, did not comment.
Nkunda went on the offensive Aug. 28 and brought his fighters to the edge of the provincial city of Goma last week before declaring a unilateral cease-fire.
Minor skirmishes broke out Tuesday north of Goma between rebels and a pro-government Mai Mai militia, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said. The Mai Mai group is one of dozens of small militias operating in eastern Congo, which the government and U.N. peacekeepers have struggled for years to secure.
The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militias who later fled into this region and have remained. Nkunda, a Tutsi, accuses the Congolese government of failing to protect ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militias.
Nkunda, who defected from the Congolese army in 2004, also says he is fighting to liberate all of Congo from a corrupt government.
All sides are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches.
Also Tuesday, International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that he was monitoring reports of war crimes in Congo and that the perpetrators "will not go unpunished." He said his investigators are hearing about murders, rapes, attacks on civilians and looting in the Congolese province of North Kivu, where much of the fighting has taken place.