Talks on peace force for Congo

PLANS FOR the world's biggest-ever peace-keeping operation will be at the centre of week-long talks starting in Zambia today, aimed at ending the 11-month war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pledges made this weekend of cash and logistics from the United States and Nigeria may add weight to peace efforts. Diplomats warn, however, that there remains a strong need to reconcile the main external protagonists, Zimbabwe and Rwanda.

The conflict in the former Zaire - a minerals-rich territory the size of western Europe - has in the last year dragged in all nine neighbouring countries. President Laurent Kabila, supported principally by Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe, is being challenged by a rebel movement backed mainly by Rwanda and Uganda.

The rebels claim President Kabila is ruling undemocratically. Mr Kabila used force to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, after 32-years of power.

Foreign and defence ministers are meeting in Lusaka. If they agree on a ceasefire, it will be policed by the belligerents themselves, reinforced by peace-keepers from other African countries.

The Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, chairing the talks, has set this Saturday as the target date for the signing of a ceasefire document.

Chiefs of staff would then meet to plan a peace-keeping operation. Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, claimed last week that the Rwandan leader, Pasteur Bizimungu, was "pretending to talk peace''.

Leaders initially met in South Africa as Nelson Mandela stood down as president.