KINSHASA (Reuters) - Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met Congo’s Joseph Kabila late on Friday and will fly east to hold talks with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda to try to avert a wider regional war and end a humanitarian crisis.
Battles between Nkunda’s fighters and the army have uprooted some 250,000 people in Congo’s North Kivu province, and Obasanjo is tasked by the United Nations with stopping a repeat of a 1998-2003 conflict that sucked in six African nations.
“They met last night,” a source in the DRC presidency told Reuters. “(Obasanjo) is now due to go to the east to find out what it is Nkunda wants and tell him this is his last chance.”
No details of the meeting in Kinshasa were available.
Obasanjo, named last week by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special envoy, met Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda before flying to Democratic Republic of Congo, and has already spoken to Nkunda by telephone.
The United Nations says the fighting has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe. On Friday, aid workers began feeding tens of thousands of refugees in rebel-held areas.
There are fears the violence could escalate into a repeat of a 1998-2003 war that killed some 5.4 million people, mostly through hunger and disease. Rights groups say rebels and rival pro-government militias killed dozens of civilians last week.
Kabila accuses neighboring Rwanda of supporting Nkunda, while southern African states led by Angola have said they are considering sending troops to back the Congolese army, or to bolster an over-stretched 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo.
The conflict’s origins trace back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus, which helped trigger the 1998-2003 war.
Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is defending Congolese Tutsis from attacks by FDLR Rwandan Hutu rebels that he and Kigali say fight with the Congolese army.
On Friday, Rwanda and Congo agreed to send Rwandan intelligence officers to the east to fight Hutu rebels, whom Rwanda sees as the root cause of the conflict.
“We shall send our elite troops to flush out the FDLR,” Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba was quoted as saying in the English-language New Times newspaper in Kigali.
In October, Nkunda’s rebels seized swathes of territory and marched to the gates of North Kivu’s provincial capital Goma before declaring a ceasefire. Sporadic clashes have continued.
Nkunda wants talks with President Kabila and has threatened to march on the capital Kinshasa if he does not agree.
Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in Kigali; Writing by Daniel Wallis; editing by Ralph Boulton