Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said today that his efforts to end fighting in Congo were going fairly well and that President Joseph Kabila had not given conditions for talks with the rebels.
Kabila's army is battling dissident Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda's rebels and Obasanjo has been charged by the United Nations with stopping the violence escalating into a re-run of the 1998-2003 conflict that sucked in six African nations.
"(I) am trying to draw together the strands that we need ... for us to be able to move forward. That has gone fairly well so far," Obasanjo told reporters in Kinshasa after meeting Kabila.
But as he arrived in eastern Congo, where he is due to meet Nkunda on Sunday, UN and rebel officials said there had been sporadic fighting between the army and the rebels to the north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
The United Nations says weeks of fighting have caused a humanitarian catastrophe. Yesterday, aid workers began feeding tens of thousands of refugees in rebel-held areas.
Obasanjo, named last week by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special envoy, met Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda before flying to Democratic Republic of Congo, and has already spoken to Nkunda by telephone.
Nkunda began his rebellion in 2004 saying he was fighting to defend fellow Tutsis in eastern Congo, particularly from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels operating there.
But after seizing swathes of territory in battles last month, Nkunda threatened to take his rebellion all the way to the distant capital Kinshasa unless Kabila negotiated with him.
Asked if Kabila was ready to talk to Nkunda, Obasanjo said: "He did not give anything that I would call conditions but we are at the exploratory stage now."
Obasanjo said he would listen to Nkunda's demands but also wanted guarantees of a "durable" ceasefire. But violence continues and UN and rebel officials said clashes took place early on Saturday near Kabasha, about 93 miles north of Goma.
"This is a precarious calm. There were exchanges of fire this morning. The army tried to advance, we had to dissuade them," said Bertrand Bisimwe, spokesman for Nkunda's CNDP group.
Bisimwe gave no details of casualties but said Nkunda would meet Obasanjo on Sunday near Rutshuru, 45 miles north of Goma.
The clash is the latest in a series despite a ceasefire declared by Nkunda after his rebels routed chaotic army units, moving north and south and arriving at the gates of Goma.