Belgian prime minister visits rebel-held city in DR Congo
KISANGANI, DR Congo, July 1 (AFP) - Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, on a landmark visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), arrived in the rebel-held city of Kisangani on Sunday, a day after announcing a resumption in aid to the war-ravaged nation.
Immediately after his arrival, Verhofstadt held talks with rebel chief Adolphe Onusumba, the head of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy, which seized the diamond-rich city in northeastern DRC shortly after war broke out nearly three years ago.
Verhofstadt was accompanied by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel and the secretary of state for cooperation, Eddy Boutmans.
The delegation is expected to visit a hospital and speak with UN peacekeepers deployed in the city.
On Saturday, Verhofstadt announced a resumption in cooperation after a 10-year halt, saying a "renaissance" was now possible under President Joseph Kabila, who has revived hopes for peace in the vast central African nation.
His visit to the DRC is the first of a Belgian head of government in a decade, after Brussels cut off aid in the early 1990s when former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko violently clamped down on student protests.
Verhofstadt's visit here coincided with the country's 41st anniversary of its independence from Belgium.
"A glimmer of hope exists for the first time in a long time in the Democratic Republic of Congo," the prime minister said during a speech at the Palace of the Nation in the capital, Kinshasa, where then-King Baudouin I of Belgium proclaimed Congo's independence on June 30, 1965.
Verhofstadt said Brussels would supply electricity to millions of residents in Kinshasa, Kisangani and in central Kananga.
After holding talks with Kabila on Saturday, Verhofstadt met with opposition groups, and called on the government and opposition parties to "create conditions for reconciliation and renaissance in the country."
The DRC's war broke out in August 1998, when Rwanda and Uganda invaded the country to prop up rebels against then president Laurent Kabila, who received immediate military backing from Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia.
The complex war, involving half a dozen militia and rebel movements, has driven the nation into deep poverty, and caused the death of some 2.5 million people, mostly from malnutrition and disease.
But hopes for peace have been resurrected since Joseph Kabila, who at the age of 29 was propelled to power after his father Laurent was fatally shot by a bodyguard in January this year.
The young Kabila has fired his father's hardliners in the cabinet, reached out to western donors, and revived a moribund ceasefire accord which has allowed the United Nations to finally deploy thousands of peacekeepers in rebel- and government-controlled zones.
Belgium has already indicated that it would offer 20 million euros (17 million dollars) for health care and transport.
But opposition parties in Kinshasa were opposed to a resumption in aid at a time when rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda still control half the country.
Residents in Kinshasa, deprived for years of jobs, electricity, telecommunications and other basic necessities, disagreed.
"The population has suffered atrociously," said Marie-Jose Iniki, a religious worker who over the years has seen entire families reduced to living in squalor and begging to make ends meet.
Copyright (c) 2001 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 07/01/2001 07:59:32
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