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Squabbling threatens to sink east Congo ceasefire

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Last-minute disagreements over a peace deal between the Congolese government, Tutsi rebels and Mai Mai militia threatened to scupper efforts to end fighting in the country’s east on Tuesday.

Government officials and diplomats said on Monday the warring factions had forged an agreement to declare an immediate ceasefire and a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone, after more than two weeks of talks.

The deal was due to be signed on Tuesday at the closing ceremony of a peace conference in Goma, capital of violence-ravaged North Kivu province.

It had been touted by foreign observers as a major step towards finally ending fighting in the east, where violence has continued despite the official end of a broader 1998-2003 war.

“We have a serious problem with the text,” Jean-Desire Muiti, a member of the delegation representing Tutsi insurgents loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, told Reuters.

Muiti said the rebels had agreed to lay down their arms and integrate into the national army or demobilize in exchange for the offer of a limited amnesty, but that the text of the deal had been changed overnight.

“We arrived this morning, and we found a new text,” he said.

Under the new document, he said the government, which had been a signatory to the ceasefire agreement, would instead sign the document as a witness.

Government officials present at the talks could not be immediately reached for comment.

Meanwhile, delegates from PARECO, one of five Mai Mai groups also due to sign the ceasefire agreement, told local journalists they had come under attack from Nkunda loyalists on Tuesday morning and threatened to not sign the deal.

Fighting between government soldiers, Nkunda’s insurgents, Mai Mai, and Rwandan Hutu rebels has driven more than 400,000 North Kivu residents from their homes in the past year, in what has become Congo’s latest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis.

War, disease and malnutrition still kill 45,000 Congolese every month in a turmoil that has claimed 5.4 million victims in nearly a decade, making it the deadliest conflict since World War Two.

Reporting by Joe Bavier; editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Roche