- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

JOMBA, Congo

Congo’s main rebel leader promised a U.N. envoy Sunday to support a cease-fire and U.N. efforts to end the fighting, and the diplomat said he hoped the warring sides would hold peace talks in Kenya.

As more heavy fighting was reported in eastern Congo, the envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, met with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda for the first time, after talking in recent days with President Joseph Kabila and the leader of neighboring Angola.

Mr. Obasanjo flew by helicopter to the rebel-held town of Jomba, near the Ugandan border, and was greeted with a hug by the gray-suited Mr. Nkunda. After a two-hour meeting in a church compound, Mr. Obasanjo said the rebel leader agreed to maintain a fragile cease-fire in the Central African nation.

But “cease-fire maintenance is like dancing tango. One does not dance tango alone,” Mr. Obasanjo noted.

In a policy shift, Mr. Nkunda applauded Mr. Obasanjo’s involvement in Congo’s crisis.

“Today is a great day for us because we were losing many men and material. Now we have a message of peace. We should work with this mission,” Mr. Nkunda said, adding that the Congolese government had to support the cease-fire as well.

Later in the regional capital of Goma, Mr. Obasanjo said he expected talks between the warring parties to take place in Nairobi, Kenya. He gave no date, though, and said it was unlikely there would be face-to-face talks between Mr. Kabila and Mr. Nkunda.

“I expect exploratory discussions,” Mr. Obasanjo said. “When it gets to a stage where the negotiators of both sides reach a point, they will report to President Kabila, who will then come into it.”

Mr. Obasanjo was due in Rwanda later Sunday for talks with that country’s president, Paul Kagame, who wields strong influence over Mr. Nkunda.

Mr. Nkunda, a former general, quit Congo’s army in 2004 and launched a rebellion that he claims is aimed at protecting ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias who fled to Congo after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that left more than 500,000 mostly Tutsis dead.

Critics, however, say Mr. Nkunda is more interested in power and the country’s mineral wealth.

Ahead of the talks, clashes broke out in Ndeko, about 55 miles north of Goma, according Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman for the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission.

Mr. Dietrich described the Sunday morning battle between government soldiers and rebels as “heavy” and said six army troops were wounded.

Low-level fighting among armed groups has ground on for years in Congo’s lawless North Kivu province, but violence sharply escalated in August and has since displaced 250,000 people.

On Saturday, Mr. Obasanjo said Mr. Kabila was willing to talk to Mr. Nkunda and “did not give anything that I would call conditions” for holding talks.

“But we are at the exploratory stage now,” he admitted.

Congo’s government has said it is willing to meet Mr. Nkunda, but only along with the many other militias operating in the region - not alone. Mr. Nkunda has criticized the government for signing deals with Chinese companies to exploit the nation’s mineral wealth.

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