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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed the presidents of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to resolve a conflict over rebels in eastern Congo whose military advances have stoked tensions in one of Africa's most volatile regions.
Clinton sat down with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Joseph Kabila in New York on Monday, delivering a firm message to both that steps must be taken to resolve the crisis, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.
Clinton's unadvertised meeting, her first joint session with the two feuding African leaders, was aimed at underscoring U.S. concern about the M23 rebel group, which the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United States and U.N. experts have all said are receiving support from neighboring Rwanda.
"The secretary sent a signal of our concern over what is happening in the region, and the need for both of these leaders to find a way to defuse tensions," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It is imperative that they take action," the official said.
Clinton's meeting comes ahead of a U.N. meeting on the crisis set for Thursday, one of a series of events taking place alongside the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York this week.
It also follows a U.S. decision in July to withdraw some $200,000 in military aid for Rwanda, Washington's first direct punitive action against the Rwandans. Several other western European nations also have cut or suspended aid.
Rwanda has denied having any link to eastern Congolese rebels, including the M23 group, who have been fighting Congolese government soldiers in North Kivu province since April, displacing some 470,000 civilians.
Without citing Rwanda by name, Kabila pointedly raised the issue in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. he said hundreds of thousands of men, women and children had been "deprived of peace and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment by a negative force directed by elements who are unrepentant because of their ... external support."
A senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that faith and trust need to be established between Rwanda and Kabila. He said Kabila had described his confidence in Rwanda as "zero."
While Rwanda has denied any involvement in eastern DRC, the official said that privately: "They are a bit embarrassed, to say the least, and this could be one of the reasons behind the lull (in fighting) in the Kivu."
He said that if Rwanda withdrew support for M23 then the group "could be subdued."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said this month that rebel forces had established a de facto administration in eastern Congo, challenging the authority of Kabila's government and strengthening their hold over the territory.
A U.N. mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO, has more than 17,000 troops, but the force is stretched thin across a nation the size of Western Europe and struggles to fulfill its current mandate of protecting civilians.
The U.S. official said Clinton did not explicitly warn Kagame that the further U.S. assistance could be at risk, but said she did emphasize that both leaders bear responsibility for reducing tensions.
"The secretary made no threats," the official said. "But it is important for Rwanda to cease any support for any groups operating against the government of the DRC, and it is important for the DRC government to take steps to protect all of its citizens."
Last month, the DRC said it had asked the U.N. Security Council to place sanctions on Rwanda's defense minister and two top military officials for backing the rebellion, although the United States and other powers are urging more time for political dialogue.
As uneasy neighbors, Congo and Rwanda have gone to war with each other in the past.
Eastern Congo's enduring conflict, which has killed, maimed and displaced several million civilians over nearly two decades, has its roots in Tutsi-Hutu ethnic and political enmities dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Rwanda's backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two crippling wars. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)