Congo rebels warn of city occupation

Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda threatened yesterday to occupy the city of Goma, in the east of the country, unless UN peacekeepers guaranteed a ceasefire, while foreign envoys scrambled to secure peace on the Rwanda-Congo border.

The threat followed a four-day offensive by Nkunda's Tutsi rebels that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, raising fears of a repeat of the 1998-2003 war in the central African country.

Nkunda, who declared a ceasefire late on Wednesday after his forces advanced almost to the limits of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, said UN soldiers had failed to stop civilians there being killed and robbed overnight by government troops in retreat. "We will go into Goma if there is no ceasefire, no security and no advance in the peace process," he said in an interview by satellite phone. He said he was talking from his headquarters at Kirolirwe, eastern Congo.

Nkunda, who has said he is fighting to protect the ethnic Tutsi minority in eastern Congo, rejected any return to a broad peace deal signed in January in North Kivu, saying the process was too dominated by President Joseph Kabila's government.

He said he was ready to talk peace, but with a neutral mediator.

As tension persisted in Goma, the UN, the EU and the US lobbied for Rwanda and Congo to end the rebellion on their common border, with EU presidency holder France pressing for deployment of an EU force.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana spoke with Rwandan President Paul Kagame yesterday, while EU aid commissioner Louis Michel metCongo's Kabila, hoping to get the two leaders to meet. "That will no doubt help to put in place political processes which are absolutely necessary," Solana told reporters in Paris. Michel meanwhile said: "We urgently need a ceasefire to stop the chaos and thesuffering of the ordinary people."

Several people were killed in looting overnight as gunfire rang out across Goma. Kevin Kennedy, a spokesman for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that while the ceasefire was holding in North Kivu, the Congolese army were "running amok" in parts of Goma.

The UN mission is redeploying peacekeepers from its overall 17,000-strong force in Congo to reinforce some 850 troops in Goma.