GOMA - Congolese rebels have called for direct negotiations with the government and the return of an exiled political opposition leader at a peace meeting aimed at ending fighting in the violence-torn east.
Delegates from General Laurent Nkunda’s four-year-old insurgency, who are attending the meeting in the eastern town of Goma, said dialogue was needed to solve the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province.
“(We) solemnly ask all present to assume their responsibilities in recommending to the government direct negotiations between the belligerents with neutral mediation acceptable to all,” Kambasu Ngeve, the head of Nkunda’s delegation to the talks, said on Sunday.
More than 400,000 North Kivu residents have fled fighting this year between government soldiers, Nkunda loyalists, local Mai Mai militia and Rwandan genocidal forces, in what has become Congo’s latest conflict-driven humanitarian crisis.
President Joseph Kabila convened the peace conference, which opened a week ago, after a large-scale government military offensive against Nkunda’s fighters crumbled in the face of stiff resistance from them last month.
But the talks, which bring together government officials, local leaders and warring armed groups in Congo’s east, have been undermined by repeated delays, boycotts, and the absence so far of both Kabila and Nkunda.
Nkunda led around 4,000 fighters into the bush in a 2004 revolt and says his insurgency is trying to protect eastern Congo’s Tutsi minority ethnic group.
Kabila’s government signed an agreement with Rwanda in November promising to drive out of eastern Congo Rwandan Hutu (FDLR) rebels who are responsible for the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda where over a million people were slaughtered.
Nkunda’s delegation at the Goma talks also called for the return of all Congolese living in exile abroad.
Thousands of Congolese refugees live in neighbouring Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi after fleeing during a 1998-2003 war and humanitarian catastrophe.
Nkunda’s delegation also called for the immediate return to Congo of former vice president and defeated presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba, who lost to Kabila in last year’s elections in the former Belgian colony.
Bemba has been living in exile in Portugal after leaving Congo in April following heavy clashes in Kinshasa between soldiers loyal to him and Kabila’s forces which the United Nations estimates killed at least 300 people.
“We are thinking especially of the necessity to allow the repatriation and reinsertion of our compatriots in neighbouring countries, but also the return without condition and in security of our compatriot Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo ... the natural leader of the parliamentary opposition,” Ngeve said.
After losing the poll to Kabila, Bemba had refused to disband his personal security contingent of former rebel fighters despite government demands he do so.
Kabila’s supporters called for Bemba’s arrest and trial for high treason. He has been demanding guarantees for his security as a condition for his return.
Congo’s parliamentary opposition is due to elect its official leader this week. Bemba, who was elected to the Senate last year, is among the front runners for the post.
But it is not clear when he might return to Kinshasa, or under what conditions.