By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, Jan 17 (Reuters) - A pledge by Congolese Tutsi rebels to abandon their four-year insurgency marks a major step towards ending more than a decade of conflict in the war-ravaged east, Congo’s government and foreign diplomats said on Saturday.
A delegation of commanders from the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by military chief General Bosco Ntaganda, said on Friday it was ready to end its war on government troops and reintegrate with the army.
On Saturday, PARECO, the largest pro-government militia operating in eastern Congo and one of the CNDP’s primary enemies, said it too was placing its fighters under government command.
"For the government, this is a very good thing that renders the evolution towards peace more real. This is a significant advance," Information Minister Lambert Mende told Reuters.
After rejecting integration of his rebel forces into a new national army after Congo’s 1998-2003 war, the CNDP’s founder, General Laurent Nkunda, led about 4,000 troops into the bush in 2004.
He said he was acting to protect his fellow ethnic Tutsis from attacks by Rwandan Hutu militia the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whom helped carry out Rwanda’s 1994 genocide which killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Ntaganda, known as "the Terminator" and wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, said last week he had overthrown Nkunda, whom he accused of blocking peace efforts.
The commanders’ declaration followed an offer by Ntaganda on Thursday to help the governments of Congo and Rwanda fight the FDLR operating in eastern Congo.
Their armed presence there is seen as a root cause of the long-running conflict in North and South Kivu provinces.
Previous attempts to end Nkunda’s rebellion, including a January 2008 peace deal, have failed. On and off fighting between the CNDP, the army, pro-government militias and Hutu rebels have forced more than 1 million residents of tiny North Kivu province to flee their homes since late 2006.
However, one Western diplomat told Reuters on Saturday there was now room for fresh optimism that the rebels were finally serious about peace.
"The most significant difference is that it’s much more than a cessation of hostilities. It also puts CNDP forces at the disposition of the government command. That is a surrender," he said.
There has been no reaction from Nkunda or those still loyal to him, but the majority of his top commanders signed Friday’s declaration, indicating that his support within the movement has waned considerably.
Rights campaigners fear Ntaganda, who was present at Friday’s declaration flanked by Congo’s interior minister and Rwanda’s military chief of staff, may be brought into the army as part of a peace deal.
"Anything that doesn’t end in the arrest of Bosco Ntaganda is in flagrant violation of international law," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In April last year, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Ntaganda, accusing him of recruiting children under 15 to fight in an ethnic-based conflict in northeast Ituri district.
Mende said Congo was aware of its obligation to bring Ntaganda to justice, but the government’s first job was to end the fighting in the east.
"We judge it more of a priority to work with Ntaganda to bring back peace. The rest we will come to later," Mende said. (Additional reporting by John Kanyunyu in Goma; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)