GOMA, Congo, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Congolese rebel chief Laurent Nkunda said on Monday he would fight African peacekeeping troops if they attacked him, as concerns grew that east Congo's conflict could suck in neighbouring armies.
Leaders from Africa's southern and Great Lakes regions have offered to send troops to try to help pacify east Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting between Nkunda's Tutsi rebels and the army has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.
Aid agencies in Congo's North Kivu province are struggling to provide shelter, food and medical care for more than 200,000 refugees around the provincial capital Goma, but say tens of thousands more are cut off in the bush. They warn of the risk of cholera and measles epidemics in the camps.
African and Western governments are worried the recent upsurge in fighting in North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, risks drawing in Congo's neighbours as occurred during a previous 1998-2003 war. That war involved six African armies and the conflict and its aftermath killed several million people.
Countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said after a regional summit in South Africa on Sunday the group would send military advisers to help the government of Congolese President Joseph Kabila.
SADC would send a peacekeeping force to east Congo "if and when necessary", its executive secretary Tomaz Salamao said.
Nkunda, whose Tutsi fighters are battling Congo government soldiers (FARDC) and their Rwandan Hutu rebel (FDLR) and Mai-Mai militia allies, said he would welcome African peacekeepers if they came as an impartial force to stabilise North Kivu.
But, speaking to Reuters by telephone from eastern Congo, he added: "If they come in and fight alongside the FARDC and the FDLR ... they will share the same shame as the DRC government.".
"If SADC engages like this, they will have made a mistake ... I am ready to fight them," Nkunda said.
Some military experts expressed doubts about how quickly a SADC security force could be dispatched to east Congo and how effective it would be against Nkunda's battle-hardened guerrilla army of 4,000, and against other marauding armed factions.
"This is good rhetoric, but I'm not sure it will happen," said Henri Boshoff, a military analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg, told Reuters.
The United Nations, which already has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17,000 strong, in Congo, is seeking up to 3,000 extra troops to reinforce its operations there. It says its existing force is thinly stretched across a country the size of Western Europe where armed groups abound.
It was not immediately clear whether the proposed African peacekeepers would operate under the U.N. mandate or separately.
ROOTS IN RWANDAN GENOCIDE
The North Kivu conflict traces its origins back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus which helped trigger the 1998-2003 Congo war. Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is defending Congolese Tutsis from attacks by FDLR Rwandan Hutu rebels he says fight with the Congolese army.
Rwanda, which has twice invaded Congo before, officially to fight Hutu rebels there, denies this and in turn accuses the Congolese government of not acting to disarm the Hutu rebels.
Analysts say that to avert the risk of a wider regional war, world and regional powers need to exert firm pressure on both Congo and Rwanda to demobilise the rival rebel groups.
"The international community has already invested billions of dollars to build and maintain peace in the Congo. To not invest hugely in diplomatic terms right now would risk it all," Francois Grignon and Fabienne Hara, Africa program director and vice president of International Crisis Group, wrote recently.
African Great Lakes leaders, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, called at a summit in Nairobi on Friday for a ceasefire and a political settlement in North Kivu, but said they could also send peacekeepers if required.
Commenting on SADC's offer of troops, Rwandan Foreign Minister Rosemary Museminali said: "There should be a ceasefire and a political solution."
European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday also called for a political settlement. Congo's government has asked neighbour Angola, which backed it during the 1998-2003 war, for help. The appearance in North Kivu of Portuguese-speaking soldiers on the government side has fuelled speculation Angola may have already sent troops. But Angola's Foreign Ministry denied this.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Nairobi, Jack Kimball in Kigali, Henrique Almeida in Luanda, Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)
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