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Government and rebel groups meet to discuss peace

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Clashes between Nkunda's forces and government troops have displaced some 800,000 civilians in North Kivu in recent months. In addition, there are more than 300,000 Congolese refugees, roughly a third of whom come from eastern DRC, living in neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, according to Simon Lubuku, spokesman for the UN's Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect the interests of the Tutsi community in eastern DRC. He has consistently refused to lay down his arms until the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) is disarmed and repatriated from its eastern DRC theatre of operations.

The FDLR is made up of the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe, responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and soldiers from the FAR, the army of the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government at that time.

Neutralising the FDLR is generally acknowledged, not only by Nkunda and the Rwandan government but also by the DRC government and the international community, as a prerequisite for restoring peace in the Kivus.

Nkunda is represented at the Goma conference by 10 members of his political wing, the National Council for the Defence of the People (CNDP).

"We have demands and the first is peace. We have asked for peace from the beginning," said CNDP spokesman Rene Abandi. "It is vital to resolve the issue of the FDLR, the issue of the displaced, the issue of refugees. But after the return of refugees, reconciliation is necessary."

"The FDLR are known throughout the world as a negative force and it is not acceptable for such a force to oppress our people. For us, there is nothing to negotiate about the FDLR's departure. They must leave," said the head of the CNDP delegation Kambasu Ngeve.

DRC Interior Minister Kalume also stressed the need to remove the FDLR from Congolese soil. However, he insisted that Nkunda's troops must be the first to disarm.

"Our priority is that all armed groups must lay down their arms and either join the national army or take part in the disarmament and demobilisation process and rejoin civilian life. We cannot recruit people into the army against their will," he said

"I call upon foreign armed groups to take part in the government programme, introduced last January [2007], which provides for their voluntary disarmament and repatriation under the protection of international institutions," Kalume added.

Hutu and Tutsi residents of eastern DRC who have Rwandan roots and continue to speak the language of that country, were keen to press home their long-voiced demands for security at the conference.

"The exclusion of Tutsis and Rwandophones by all Congolese governments is the reason for this insecurity. It has made hundreds of thousands of Congolese stateless. We must solve this problem to achieve peace," said Emmanuel Kamanzi, a member of the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a political party that evolved from a Rwanda-backed rebel group of the same name that played a major part in the 1998-2003 civil war in DRC.

He believes the exclusion of these groups is the fault of politicians.

"People from different ethnic groups in the region have no problem living together. The conflict is between political leaders," he said.

The conference has faced problems from the start with several groups, such as the Mayi-Mayi militia, refusing to attend, claiming that they were excluded from its organisation.

"We fear the solutions that will come from this conference have been decided in advance by the United States and Britain," complained Willy Mishiga of an opposition coalition, the Union of the Nation.

Mishiga was angry that the opposition were not invited to the conference.

"Nkunda is not the only rebel we have in DRC. What about the others who were not invited to this conference?" he asked.

Some ethnic groups have also voiced their discontent, such as the Nande, who oppose negotiations with Nkunda and want him to be defeated militarily instead.

Discussions will fall under four broad themes - peace, security, humanitarian and social issues and development.

However, critics say that many key issues are not even on the agenda and no real breakthrough can be made when key players are missing.

One North Kivu analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said an effective peace conference must focus on negotiations between the warring parties.

"A conference that claims to address everything from reconstruction to community reconciliation without providing any basis for direct negotiations between the belligerents can't possibly achieve peace. Peace is made between opponents who sit down to negotiate," he said.

The Rwandan government and some observers claim the Congolese army is collaborating with the FDLR rather than trying to disarm it.

"FARDC elements co-operate with the FDLR, the remnants of the Hutu forces that committed the genocide in Rwanda, who they are supposed to disarm, sharing looted items and taxes and the proceeds from gold and coltan [a metallic ore] mining operations," Refugees International stated in a recent report, Transition without Military Transformation.

Refugees International says the national army, the FARDC, has become "a major source of insecurity for civilian communities in the east" since it integrated former rebel soldiers into its ranks after a hasty 45-day training programme.

The Congolese government denies these allegations.

km/am/sr


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