JOHANNESBURG, 7 December (IRIN) -
A Joint Military Commission (JMC) team is to travel to Rwanda shortly to
discuss safe passage for Zimbabwean soldiers trapped by Kigali-backed rebels
in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a spokesman for Zimbabwe's Armed
Forces Headquarters told IRIN on Tuesday.
The JMC team, comprising representatives of the United Nations, Organisation of African Unity and Zambia, is expected to visit Rwanda in the next seven days to negotiate the safety of 700 Zimbabwean soldiers besieged in the northeastern DRC town of Ikela by Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD) rebels. The JMC team will also travel to Goma and Kinshasa in the DRC.
"We hope the JMC can do something," Colonel Charles Mugari told IRIN. He denied press reports that a Zimbabwean military delegation had arrived in Kigali on Sunday for talks on the fate of the soldiers in Ikela. "No Zimbabwean delegation has gone to discuss safe passage," he said.
Mugari also said that Zimbabwean forces had been able to parachute supplies to the troops, but confirmed that planes have been unable to land at the airport because of rebel machine gun fire. Last month, the local RCD commander reportedly offered the Zimbabweans safe passage out of Ikela if they left behind their heavy equipment - a condition rejected by Harare.
Zimbabwean troops have held Ikela since before the DRC ceasefire was signed in Lusaka, Zambia, in August. According to Mugari, access to the town was a condition of the Lusaka Agreement, and its encirclement by DRC rebel forces an infringement of the truce.
"They have been encircled, and we don't know the intention of the rebels, so you could say they are under threat," he told IRIN.
Zimbabwean and DRC government forces have been attempting to breakthrough to Ikela to rescue the troops trapped at the town's airport. In what reports described as the fiercest fighting since the Lusaka ceasefire agreement, airstrikes and gunboats were used last week to force the RCD out of Bokungu in Equateur Province, but the rebels fell back to a new defensive line to block access to Ikela.
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