Renegade general abandons eastern Congo ceasefire

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KINSHASA, Oct 8 (Reuters) Congolese renegade general Laurent Nkunda today abandoned a month-old ceasefire in an eastern border province, blaming attacks by the government which in turn accused him of pushing the country towards war.

Nkunda's announcement heralded more conflict and suffering in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where fighting between his soldiers and government troops have already forced tens of thousands of civilians from their homes.

The province, which borders Uganda and Rwanda, has long been a tinderbox of ethnic tensions and clashes between the army and rival rebel and militia groups.

After fighting in the east in August and early September, the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) announced on September 6 a limited truce between the rebel Tutsi general and the army.

But fresh clashes between the two sides broke out last week and over the weekend, and UN military sources said fighting continued today in several parts of North Kivu.

Nkunda accused the government army, which said it killed at least 35 of his fighters last week, of attacking his positions.

''There is no ceasefire. ... We have told ourselves we will no longer stand with our arms crossed while people are dying. We must react. We are soldiers,'' Nkunda told Reuters by telephone.

''MONUC thinks there is a ceasefire, but we've abandoned it.'' In response, Congo's Defence Minister Chikez Diemu accused Nkunda, who says he is defending the interests of Congo's Tutsi ethnic group, of trying to ''Balkanise'' the country.

''He's playing a dangerous game. Now he's pushing us towards war,'' the minister told Reuters.

He said the government had given the rebel general until October 15 to stop hostilities and integrate his forces into the Congolese national army, or face tough action.

''We'll catch him like a mouse in a hole,'' Diemu said.

He added Congo would implement measures agreed with its Great Lakes neighbours Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. He did not spell these out but the states have been discussing cooperation to counter rebel groups operating in eastern Congo.

ETHNIC ENMITY Some of the recent North Kivu fighting took place in Virunga National Park, Africa's oldest park, forcing rangers to flee and putting endangered mountain gorillas there at risk.

The UN mission in Congo, which has a 17,000 strong peacekeeping force in the former Belgian colony, said it was closely monitoring the renewed fighting in North Kivu province.

''There's some fighting going on now in Masisi (district). It's taking place in three locations, including Karuba and Ngungu,'' a UN military spokesman Major P K Tiwari said.

Nkunda, who led a 2004 rebellion, accuses Congo President Joseph Kabila's government and armed forces of supporting Rwandan Hutu rebels -- traditional ethnic enemies of the Tutsi.

The largely Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels are accused of involvement in Rwanda's 1994 genocide that saw the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by a Hutu-led government and ethnic militias.

Kabila denies supporting the FDLR.

The North Kivu fighting has displaced tens of thousands of civilians and foreign relief agencies have warned of a fresh humanitarian catastrophe in Congo, which is still recovering from a 1998-2003 war that killed some 4 million people, mostly from hunger and disease generated by conflict.

A January accord raised hopes for peace by integrating his rebel soldiers into mixed national army brigades, but Nkunda's men abandoned the mixed brigades in August, amid mutual accusations of violence and discrimination.

REUTERS PD BD2021

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