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Saturday November 2, 2013 MYT 1:40:01 AM
Saturday November 2, 2013 MYT 1:40:55 AM
by elias biryabarema AND kenny katombe
KAMPALA/RUMANGABO, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Uganda called on the Congolese army and M23 rebels to cease fire on Friday as peace talks progressed in Kampala to end a 20-month conflict.
But, while the rebels said they were ready for a peace deal, government forces vowed to pursue their military advantage and crush the rebellion in Democratic Republic of Congo's mineral-rich east.
Peace talks resumed in the Ugandan capital Kampala on Wednesday, 10 days after they collapsed over rebel demands for amnesty, triggering renewed hostilities. A week-long army offensive has driven the rebels back to mountain bases and many have fled to neighbouring Uganda or defected.
"The chief facilitator (Uganda's Defence Minister Chrispus Kiyonga) has requested the warring parties to stop the fight and from yesterday up until this morning there's no fighting," said Ugandan Lieutenant Colonel Paddy Ankunda.
The U.S. envoy to the Great Lakes region, Russ Feingold, told Reuters on Thursday an initial agreement could be reached as early as this weekend.
A Reuters witness said fighting had ceased in the area near Rumangabo, about 50 km (30 miles) north of the regional capital Goma, but army vehicles and troops there appeared to be regrouping.
M23, led by ethnic Tutsis, took up arms last year accusing Kinshasa of failing to honour a 2009 peace deal to end a previous uprising. It has become the most serious rebellion in Congo's east since a war ended a decade ago.
Eastern Congo has been caught up in a cycle of violence, exacerbated by the presence of rival ethnic militias and simmering disputes over land and minerals.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende said Kinshasa was hoping for a breakthrough in the talks but added that it would not accept an amnesty for rebel leaders.
Roger Lumbala, a former member of parliament who is a senior member of the M23 negotiating team, said the rebels were simply waiting for an invitation from mediators to sign a deal.
"An agreement could be signed today according to the latest information we have from the facilitator. Nothing is blocking the signing," he told Reuters.
"JOB IS TO ELIMINATE"
The Congolese army, however, said it would push ahead towards its goal of eliminating all rebel groups.
"Talks have resumed at Kampala but we will continue to pursue the enemy. Our job is to eliminate all the armed groups in the region but we will start with M23," said army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli.
M23's military commander said the rebels were ready to fight on if necessary.
"We are ready to fight to the end if they pursue us. Negotiations have restarted and there may be an agreement. If there is an agreement that is fine, but if they pursue us, we will fight," M23's General Sultani Makenga told Reuters by telephone from eastern Congo.
In November last year, rebels alarmed Western powers when they swept past U.N. peacekeepers to take Goma, a city of 1 million people. That led to U.N. forces being bolstered, Congo's army overhauled and neighbouring countries pressured not to meddle in the conflict, changing the tide of the conflict.
U.N. experts and human rights groups have accused Rwanda of backing M23, something Kigali denies. After Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which Hutus killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, Rwanda repeatedly sent its army into Congo, saying it was hunting Hutu rebels who had fled there.
U.S. envoy Feingold cautioned that any peace deal would not end decades of instability unless the root causes, including ethnic tensions, are resolved. He said the army must not repeat abuses against civilians that could ignite a new conflict.
In the border town of Bunagana, retaken by army troops on Wednesday, residents said fighting had ceased on Friday but army indiscipline was mounting.
"They are looting, breaking down doors and stealing from homes. We are still in a situation of insecurity," said the resident, who asked not to be identified.
(Additional reporting by Pete Jones in Kinshasa and Bate Felix in Dakar; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Heavens)
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