DR Congo

Talk or I restart war, DR Congo rebel tells government

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By Emmanuel Braun

KIROLIRWE, Congo, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda threatened on Tuesday to take his eastern guerrilla war westwards to the capital Kinshasa unless the government agreed to talks on the country's future.

Defiant in the face of international moves to end the conflict in east Democratic Republic of Congo, Nkunda rejected complaints by human rights groups against him, saying he "didn't give a damn" about the International Criminal Court (ICC).

"I've done no wrong to my people ... nobody can reproach me for anything," the slim, bespectacled rebel chief said in an interview at his hilltop headquarters in North Kivu province.

Nkunda, who belongs to and defends Congo's Tutsi minority but also demands a better government for the whole country, last week suspended a major advance towards North Kivu's provincial capital Goma that displaced tens of thousands of civilians.

The United Nations and foreign aid groups are now scrambling to address a humanitarian emergency described as "catastrophic" by relief workers in a country where more than 5 million people have died in a decade from conflict, hunger and disease.

Wearing a green beret and beige camouflage uniform and carrying a cane topped with a silver eagle's head, Nkunda said that if his offer of talks was not accepted by President Joseph Kabila, he would end a ceasefire in North Kivu.

"If they refuse to negotiate, it will mean they will be ready to only fight and we will fight them because we have to fight for our freedom," Nkunda said, surrounded by verdant hills that have earned North Kivu the name "Africa's Switzerland".

The atmosphere there was peaceful, in sharp contrast to the anguish and suffering of refugees packed into camps around Goma, who are clamouring for food and protection from violence.

But 50 km (35 miles) to the northeast at Kiwanja, Nkunda's men fought a gun battle with the Pareco Mai-Mai militia, some of whose fighters backed Kabila during the war but which, like Nkunda, had signed a peace deal for North Kivu in January.

U.N. peacekeepers at a mobile operations base were caught in the crossfire but none were injured, a U.N. spokesman said.

Nkunda, a former army general who commands a 4,000-strong guerrilla force, said his next offensive would not stop at Goma, where U.N. peacekeepers have reinforced positions, but aim for Congo's capital Kinshasa, over 1,500 km (950 miles) to the west.

"Goma is just a place to pass through ... When they force us to come down to Goma we won't stop there," he said.

Congo's government has refused to talk with Nkunda since his latest offensive and accuses neighbouring Rwanda, also a former Belgian colony, of backing him -- a charge denied by Kigali.

"I'm not from Rwanda and I claim nothing for Rwanda," said Nkunda, who led his rebel cabinet in a prayer before a meeting.

U.N. peacekeepers say their 17,000-strong force, the world's largest peace mission, is badly stretched across a country the size of Western Europe, where violent armed groups abound, often profiting from its rich reserves of copper, cobalt and gold.

International efforts are under way to hold a peace summit between Congo and Rwanda and tackle the humanitarian emergency.

ECONOMIC RISKS

Since 2006 elections that returned Kabila to power, hopes rose that the vast central African nation had finally left behind the 1998-2003 war that left the economy in ruins.

Investor interest in Congo's mineral treasure trove has risen in the last two years. But Central Bank Governor Jean-Claude Masangu said on Tuesday weak demand for metals in the global financial crisis will push economic growth below 10 percent next year and force a scaling back of mining projects.

Masangu listed the humanitarian crisis in the east, and the pressures of military spending, as economic risks.

Rebel chief Nkunda said the negotiations he sought with the government should focus on "good governance and security".

"To become head of state is not my ambition," he said.

Rights groups accuse his men of recruiting child soldiers and the ICC has issued a warrant for one of his commanders. ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said on Tuesday crimes like rape and mass displacements in the Kivus would not go unpunished.

Nkunda backed the idea of a peace summit between Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, but called for an "internal solution" for east Congo's conflict, which nevertheless traces its origins back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

At a refugee camp near Goma, ragged children with swollen bellies mobbed U.N. mission chief Alan Doss, demanding food.

Doss said the U.N. force had brought in more troops to Goma from other parts of the country. "But we're robbing Peter to pay Paul, MONUC is thinly stretched," he told Reuters.

For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit:

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(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinhasa and Hez Holland and Yves Boussen in Goma; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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