Congo rebels demand government sign ceasefire for talks

BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of Congo Thu Jan 3, 2013 12:34pm EST

1 of 3. M23 military leader General Sultani Makenga attend press conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo January 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/James Akena

BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Congolese rebels on Thursday threatened to walk away from this week's peace talks to end their nine-month revolt unless the government signs an official ceasefire, a demand Kinshasa dismissed as unnecessary.

The rebel March 23 Movement, preparing for talks on Friday in Kampala, capital of regional mediator Uganda, said government troops had reinforced positions in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and warned it would resist an offensive.

"If Kinshasa continues to refuse to sign a ceasefire, M23 is going to ask its delegation to return to DRC. We will wait and when they say 'we're ready to sign (a ceasefire)' we'll go back," Jean-Marie Runiga, head of the rebels' political wing, told reporters in Bunagana, a border town under rebel control.

The first attempt at peace talks to end the nine-month rebellion in Congo's volatile east failed last month amid threats and accusations.

A government spokesman dismissed the rebel demand.

"There's no point in a ceasefire. When did we declare war?" Lambert Mende told Reuters by telephone. "This group wants permission to kill Congolese without the army reacting, and we will never accept that. If they attack us, attack the people, the army will defend the people."

Negotiations began last month after regional leaders secured a rebel pull-out from the city of Goma in Congo's eastern North Kivu province. The front lines have been quiet since, although the talks quickly stalled in a climate of deep mistrust.

Foreign powers fear the conflict could spark another regional war in a borderlands zone that has suffered nearly two decades of turmoil. Neighboring Uganda and Rwanda are accused by a group of U.N. experts of supporting the rebel campaign.

Successive cross-border conflicts have killed and uprooted millions in the Congo basin since the colonial era, driven by political and ethnic divisions and competition for minerals.

At first, M23, named after a 2009 peace deal for eastern Congo, said it had taken up arms because the Kinshasa government failed to honor its side of the bargain, under which rebel fighters were integrated into the army. It later broadened its goals to include the "liberation" of all of Congo and the removal of President Joseph Kabila.

U.N. BLACKLISTED

M23 is led by Bosco Ntaganda, a Tutsi warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court. This week the United Nations blacklisted M23 along with another Congolese rebel group.

"We need encouragement from the U.N., not sanctions," said Runiga, dressed in a sharp suit and flanked by fighters clad in crisp fatigues and brandishing automatic rifles.

Nestled in lush green hills less than a kilometer from the Ugandan frontier, Bunagana fell into rebel hands last July after government soldiers fled.

The other group hit with U.N. sanctions was the FDLR, or Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu group that opposes Rwandan President Paul Kagame's Tutsi-led government and includes militiamen suspected of participating in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

One M23 commander, Bertrand Bisimwa, said Congo's government had air-dropped FDLR fighters to reinforce army positions near Goma last month. Officials from the government were not immediately available to comment on the accusation.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, MONUSCO, rejected talk that the number of FDLR fighters had risen to several thousand.

MONUSCO said on Wednesday that the group had "no more than a few hundred" fighters in the region and dismissed claims that weapons and munitions were being supplied to the FDLR.

(Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Nairobi and Bienvenu Bakumanya in Kinshasa; Writing by Richard Lough and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Jason Webb)