GOMA, Congo, Oct 15 (Reuters) The United Nations made a last-ditch appeal today for rebel Congolese soldiers to rejoin the national army after their leader ignored a government deadline to disband his forces in the east.
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila had given renegade General Laurent Nkunda until today to send his Tutsi fighters in eastern North Kivu province to army integration centres or see them forcibly disarmed.
But the rebel leader, whose recent battles with government troops have forced thousands of civilians from their homes, ignored the ultimatum and called for more talks on a peace deal.
Amid widespread expectations of an imminent all-out government military offensive against Nkunda, Kabila and key ministers discussed the eastern revolt with U.N. officials and foreign ambassadors in the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
''We're once again appealing for all of the dissidents to come to the army integration centres without delay and without conditions,'' William Swing, head of the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, told reporters after the talks.
Congolese officials refused to say if an offensive would be launched immediately against Nkunda, citing the need for secrecy.
But they suggested some leeway might be given to allow more time for Nkunda's fighters to come out of the bush.
''We think we're giving peace a chance,'' Defence Minister Chikez Diemu said. Since the ultimatum was announced, more than 150 rebels had quit Nkunda's ranks, officials said.
''Kabila seems prepared to give Nkunda another 10 days to comply with the government's demands before new operations are launched,'' a Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said.
Kabila would visit the United States next week, diplomats said.
The South African, British, French and Belgian ambassadors and the acting US mission head took part in the Goma talks.
Kabila, who vowed to pacify all of his vast country after winning elections in the war-scarred former Belgian colony last year, has made clear he is running out of patience with Nkunda, who has led a three-year rebellion in North Kivu.
HUMANITARIAN FEARS Nkunda says he is defending Congo's Tutsi ethnic community against attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels he says are supported by Kabila's government and army. Kabila denies such support exists.
''Clearly, an ultimatum has military implications,'' Kabila's spokesman Kudura Kasongo told Reuters, referring to the deadline that passed on Monday. He added Kabila wanted to find a lasting, peaceful solution, ''but we won't wait for ever''.
Swing said the international community wanted to see a swift end to the conflict in North Kivu, both through the disbanding of Nkunda's fighters and the withdrawal from east Congo of the Rwandan Hutu rebels the general sees as his sworn enemies.
UN relief agencies and foreign governments fear an all-out offensive against Nkunda will sharply worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in North Kivu, where some 370,000 people have fled fighting in the province this year.
Nkunda has said he would be prepared to leave the country if certain conditions were met. He has called for more discussions on the safe return of Congolese Tutsi refugees from neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Burundi.
The largely Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels Nkunda views as his foes are accused of involvement in Rwanda's 1994 genocide that saw the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
REUTERS RSA PM2222