Congo rebels to return to talks, but not to army

BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of Congo Sun Sep 8, 2013 1:22pm EDT

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BUNAGANA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo's M23 insurgents said on Sunday they are ready to return to peace talks and would not make integration into the national army, which has not proved successful in the past, part of the deal.

Regional presidents on Thursday called Kinshasa and the rebels to restart negotiations after the army, backed by U.N. troops, bolstered the government's position with rare military successes in recent fighting.

The M23 insurgency is the latest incarnation of a Tutsi-dominated rebellion that has repeatedly tried to integrate into the Congolese army, only to withdraw. Its fighters deserted en masse 18 months ago, accusing the government of reneging on a 2009 peace deal.

M23's leader Bertrand Bisimwa said on Sunday that the rebels would send a delegation to talks which are due to reopen in Uganda's capital Kampala on Monday. But he said they were not interested in pursuing a new reintegration deal.

"We are not demanding integration into the FARDC or into politics," he told journalists in the town of Bunagana, a rebel stronghold near Congo's eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda.

Congo's government has already said it will attend the talks.

Millions of people have died from violence, disease and hunger in Congo's gold, diamond and tin-rich eastern borderlands during nearly two decades of ethnically driven conflict that has its roots in Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Bisimwa reiterated a long-standing demand that the government eradicate the Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels, made up in part of ex-soldiers and militia who fled to Congo after slaughtering around 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

M23 has accused the army of receiving military support from the FDLR, an accusation Kinshasa rejects. The government and U.N. investigators meanwhile claim Rwanda is supporting M23, a charge the rebels and Kigali have repeatedly denied.

Bisimwa also called for the return of thousands of Congolese refugees - most of them Tutsis - now living in camps in Rwanda.

"We are ready to go to Kampala and to be disarmed. And our soldiers are ready to enter the demobilization process if Kinshasa accepts to fulfill the two conditions," he said.

M23 humiliated Congo's army and the country's 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission by briefly occupying the eastern city of Goma in November, forcing Kabila to accept the Ugandan-brokered peace talks as a condition of the rebels' withdrawal.

However, with the help of a new U.N. Intervention Brigade - created in wake of Goma's seizure and given a tough mandate to neutralize armed groups - the army has pushed M23 fighters away from the city of one million.

A military standoff has prevailed since the rebels pulled back to Kibumba, some 30 km (18 miles) north of Goma, last month. U.N. forces are reluctant to pursue them deep into the dense forests and rugged hills of North Kivu province.

(Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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