GOMA – The United Nations made a last-ditch appeal for rebel Congolese soldiers to rejoin the national army after their leader ignored a government deadline to disband his forces in the east.
The deadline has been extended.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President Joseph Kabila had given General Laurent Nkunda until Monday to send his fighters in eastern North Kivu province to army integration centres or see them forcibly disarmed.
But Gen. Nkunda, whose recent battles with government troops have forced thousands of civilians from their homes, ignored the ultimatum and called for more talks.
General Nkunda said he is willing to integrate his fighters into the army but has refused to surrender or bow to government ultimatums. He said that if certain security conditions are met he is prepared to talk.
Defence Minister Chikez Diemu confirmed that the deadline had been extended but not until any specific date.
He said the aim was to give more time to a process of disarmament that had already made significant progress – with 1,200 fighters defecting from Nkunda’s movement in the last few days and more expected to follow.
Amid widespread expectations of an imminent all-out government military offensive against Nkunda, Kabila and key ministers discussed the eastern revolt with UN officials and foreign ambassadors in the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma.
“We’re once again appealing for all of the dissidents to come to the army integration centres without delay and without conditions,” William Swing, head of the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, told reporters after the talks.
Congolese officials refused to say if an offensive would be launched immediately. But they suggested some leeway might be given to allow Nkunda’s fighters to come out of the bush.
“Kabila seems prepared to give Nkunda another 10 days to comply with the government’s demands before new operations are launched,” a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.
Kabila would visit the United States next week, diplomats said. The South African, British, French and Belgian ambassadors and the acting U.S. mission head took part in the Goma talks.
Nkunda says he is defending Congo’s Tutsi ethnic community against attacks by Rwandan Hutu FDLR rebels he says are supported by Kabila’s government and army. Kabila denies such support exists.
The European Union said military force alone would not solve the problem and could upset regional stability.
“The EU emphasises that an exclusively military approach .. will only worsen the situation, particularly in humanitarian terms,” the EU presidency said in a statement.
Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg, spokeswoman for the UN peacekeeping force, Monuc, told the BBC that the Congolese government appears to have backed down for the moment:
“I don’t think we are going to get a big threat of a major offensive right now at least... As far as we understood, the government is quite encouraged by the results of the three weeks exercise that we’ve just been through.”