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DR Congo peace talks start in Kenya

XINHUA - December 9, 2008

Nairobi - Kenya
Talks aimed at restoring peace in the war-ravaged eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) kicked off in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday with mediators calling on both sides to lay down their arms for the sake of stability in the Great Lakes Region.

Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula urged the warring parties to put aside their differences and pursue the path of peace.

"I wish to urge you to put aside your differences and realize that you have only one Congo, and that the international community is here with you to encourage and assist you," Wetangula told the delegations at the meeting.

However, the widely expected direct talks between rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda and DR Congo President Joseph Kabila's government did not take place. The government delegation is led by International and Regional Cooperation Minister Raymond Tshibanda while the five-man rebel delegation is headed by Serge Kambasu Ngeve, the deputy executive secretary for the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP).

The government of DR Congo has refused calls for direct talks with Nkunda's forces, a condition, the rebel leader said, for ending his four-year-old revolt in the east.

The rebel's advance in recent months has forced some 250,000 people from their homes, sparking a humanitarian crisis.

"A military solution is not an option. The talks are an opportunity that must neither be lost nor wasted," said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who is the UN special envoy for DR Congo.

Obasanjo said the talks are aimed at establishing a lasting cease-fire that will allow humanitarian aid agencies to scale up their operations into the troubled region.

"Let us now get on with it. Talks give the government and CNDP an opportunity for final cessation of violence and hostilities," he said.

Gen. Nkunda's forces declared a ceasefire after reaching the gates of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma in late October.

It has been generally respected by both the rebels and the government forces, leading to more than a month of relative calm in North Kivu.

However, clashes continue between Nkunda's fighters and local Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu rebels, who roam the province rich in gold, diamonds, coltan and tin, and often support Kabila's weak army.

Obasanjo said the peace talks will not be slammed on anybody or other armed groups since what was important was to secure peace in the troubled region.

"The door will not be closed to other armed groups. We appeal to your principles to make this dialogue a success. The eyes of the world are on you," said the UN envoy.

Nkunda has said that he wants to discuss security and the situation for ethnic minorities. But Kinshasa demanded that Nkunda's CNDP rebels return to a wider peace pact signed in January with several armed groups.

Both Rwanda and Nkunda have accused the Congolese government of not doing enough to tackle the Hutu rebels.

The agreement to hold talks was reached in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, which is surrounded by Nkunda's forces.

The talks will seek to "formalize" a ceasefire declared by the rebels last month but since broken by both sides.

The DR Congo government is expected to sign an agreement to take action against the Rwandan Hutu rebels in exchange for Rwanda agreeing to use its influence over Nkunda to help end the fighting in eastern DR Congo.

Fighting has escalated since August, with Nkunda claiming to have taken territory in North Kivu since then. About 250,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Kinshasa has accused Rwanda, its eastward neighbor, of supporting the CNDP in North Kivu, which was denied by Rwanda.

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