DR Congo

U.N. troubleshooter starts talks on Congo crisis

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By Hereward Holland

KIWANJA, Congo, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Aid workers in eastern Congo began feeding tens of thousands of hungry refugees in rebel-held areas on Friday and a U.N.-appointed envoy started urgent talks aimed at averting a wider war. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, named by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as his special envoy for eastern Congo, met Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos in Luanda and then flew on to the Congolese capital Kinshasa.

Obasanjo, tasked with seeking a lasting solution to the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, was to hold talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila.

Obasanjo said he wanted to meet rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

"Yesterday, by telephone, I spoke to my brother Nkunda ... everything will be done to meet with him face to face," he told Reuters at Luanda airport before leaving for Kinshasa. He said details were still being worked out.

Fighting between Nkunda's Tutsi rebels and the Congolese army has forced some 250,000 people from their homes in North Kivu since late August, resulting in what the U.N. has called a humanitarian catastrophe and fears of a broader war.

For the first time after weeks of fighting, U.N. aid workers on Friday handed out rations of maize and lentils to the first of at least 50,000 hungry civilians in Rutshuru territory, the scene of weeks of battles between rebel and government forces.

Under a hot sun, men, women and children lined up quietly in a church compound and a football stadium after the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) convoy crossed the front lines.

Obasanjo said he was hopeful his mission could achieve peace. "I'm confident, but it will not be easy," he said.

There are fears fighting could escalate into a repeat of a 1998-2003 war that sucked in six African states and led to millions of deaths.

Kabila accuses neighbouring Rwanda of supporting Nkunda, while southern African states led by Angola have said they are considering sending troops to back the Congolese army, or to bolster a stretched 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo.

Obasanjo said he had received assurances from Angola that no Angolan troops were fighting with Congolese government forces, contrary to repeated rumours.

"I want to end the speculation that Angolan troops are fighting side by side with Congolese troops ... that is not the case," the former Nigerian president said.

CONGO AND RWANDA TO COOPERATE

The origins of the North Kivu conflict can be traced back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis by Hutus, which helped trigger the 1998-2003 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.

The BBC reported late on Friday that the Congolese and Rwandan foreign ministers, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba and Rosemary Museminali, had agreed at a meeting in the Rwandan capital Kigali on moves to try to end the conflict on their border.

They agreed Rwandan intelligence officers would go into Congo to work with the Congolese army and the international community to help end the presence of the Hutu fighters, which Nkunda gives as the justification for his rebellion.

No more details of the deal were immediately available.

In a newspaper interview, Rwandan President Paul Kagame denied his government was backing Nkunda and urged the U.N. to send a fighting force to replace the peacekeepers.

"Can they put together a force to actually deal with all these problems...?," Britain's Guardian quoted him as saying.

In October, Nkunda's rebels seized swathes of Rutshuru territory and marched to the gates of provincial capital Goma before declaring a ceasefire. Sporadic clashes have continued.

Protected by U.N. peacekeepers, a convoy of 12 trucks carrying 100 tonnes of maize, lentils, oil and salt wound its way north on Friday, crossing the combat lines in the shadow of the Nyiragongo volcano, before arriving in Rutshuru and Kiwanja, towns 70 km (40 miles) north of Goma.

"I can't remember how many days my family hasn't eaten. I think about four or five days. These are very small quantities. How can families survive?" teacher Djuma Kabere said as young men pushed bicycles loaded with sacks of white maize meal.

"It's more important to bring peace instead of food," he added. As the food was distributed, children ducked under ropes to scoop up handfuls of maize that fell on the ground.

"This is the first time we have been able to move food trucks across the frontline into the rebel-held areas," said WFP spokesman Marcus Prior. The U.N. says malnutrition in Rutshuru, usually a breadbasket, is almost twice emergency levels.

Rights groups say the rebels and a rival pro-government militia killed dozens of civilians in Kiwanja last week.

Nkunda wants talks with President Kabila and has threatened to march on the capital Kinshasa if he does not agree.

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Henrique Almeida in Luanda; writing by David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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