Kinyarwanda-speaking Laurent Nkunda, a rebellious Congolese general, now sueing for peace
MASISI, 23 Jan 2007 (IRIN) - Laurent Nkunda, the dissident army general, agreed to participate in talks with the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo on two conditions: that troops loyal to him be integrated into the national army; and that the government ensure the protection and rights of all Kinyarwanda-speakers, most of whom live in eastern Congo.
"We want to join the peace initiative," Nkunda said on Saturday during an interview at his headquarters in the mountainous region of Masisi in eastern Congo. "But, initially, what we want is an assurance that our people are protected and that they enjoy their rights like any other Congolese citizen."
The talks, between Nkunda's rebel movement, known as Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP), and the Congolese army, have been going on in Kigali since early January under the mediation of the Rwandan government. Nkunda established the CNDP officially in July 2006, during a meeting attended by members of the public, senior military commanders and politicians of the rebel movement at Nyamitaba village in Masisi.
If agreement is reached between Nkunda's group and the government, it could stabilise areas where tens of thousands of civilians have periodically been displaced and affected by insecurity and atrocities, caused by his and other armed groups.
Since 2004, Nkunda has led a low-level rebellion against the Congolese government, mostly in North Kivu province, in a bid to stop what he has termed the persecution of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese, known as the Rwandophones, who originally came from Rwanda.
The Kinyarwanda-speaking Nkunda, also known as Nkundabatware, was born in 1967 in Masisi in North Kivu. He was trained at Gabiro military camp in northeastern Rwanda before joining the Congolese rebel movement of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie - RCD-Goma in 1998, where he immediately became commander of the Seventh Brigade of the rebel forces.
Nkunda controls an estimated 2,000 men, most of whom are Rwandophones who deserted from the national army. Most of the fighting between Nkunda's men and the army took place near Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and caused the displacement of thousands of civilians. The latest flare-up in December 2006 displaced another 15,000.
On the integration of his troops into the national army, Nkunda said the talks would succeed if all his fighters were to be integrated under the army command based in the DRC capital, Kinshasa.
The integration of other former rebel movements into the national army has proven complicated, since most former rebel movements have remained autonomous in relation to the central government in Kinshasa, especially in the eastern region. So far, only a few militia and rebel units have been integrated into the army; progress has been slow because some former rebels have refused to obey the chief of the general staff in Kinshasa.
Nkunda's rebellion has dominated North Kivu, especially along the road connecting Goma to Sake trading centre, 20km west of Goma, which is under the control of the CNDP. It is here, where Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese are the majority, that Nkunda has declared himself liberator of the people, whom he claims have been oppressed because of their Rwandan origin.
However, with the start of the talks between the CNDP and the Congolese government, Nkunda has softened his stance and has said he is willing to accept the integration of his troops into the national army.
"This action will be done under guarantee to reassure the protection of the Kinyarwanda-speaking population," Nkunda told IRIN at his CNDP headquarters.
"We agreed to be reintegrated into the government troops, the two parties in the negotiations have agreed on the creation of two mixed units comprising the CNDP rebel troops and other elements from the government army," he added.
Asked what action he would take if the negotiations failed, Nkunda said: "We do not want a war; we want to protect our population. We do not want to cause any disruption but if the enemy wants it, we are ready for confrontation."
He said it was important for government leaders to recognise and take into account past killings targeting Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese and to ensure that this is not repeated in future. He said the exclusionist policy of past Congolese administrations "to divide and rule" had been a mistake that the current administration should avoid.
"And if the same insecurity persists, any peace agreement reached would be fragile," Nkunda said.