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Last-minute shift could jeopardize Congo peace talks

Gen. Laurent Nkunda's rebel group says Congo's move to invite 20 other rebel groups could scupper bilateral talks that began Monday.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Rob CrillyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 2008

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa; and NAIROBI, Kenya

Talks to end three months of fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo started in Nairobi on Monday, raising hopes that nearly 260,000 internal refugees may finally be able to go home.

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The bilateral talks, brokered by United Nations envoy and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, are the first positive sign since fighting broke out between Gen. Laurent Nkunda's rebels and government forces, a conflict that has exposed the ineffectiveness of the Congolese Army and stretched the UN peacekeeping force to the breaking point.

A last-minute glitch in the talks between General Nkunda's representatives and the Congolese government still could bring the talks to a precipitous halt. Congo's government announced this weekend that it had invited more than 20 other rebel groups to the talks, a move that Nkunda's spokesman called "impossible" and likely to scupper the talks altogether.

"It could be over, if the government actually gets all these 22 groups on the plane for Nairobi," says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Brussels.

Of the 22 recognized armed groups in eastern Congo, Nkunda's militia is "the most important, the most significant," adds Ms. Van Woudenberg, a fact demonstrated by their ability to push the Congolese Army around at will and unleash fighting that displaced some 260,000 people in a matter of weeks.

Bringing other smaller rebel groups to the table may prompt Nkunda's people to walk out. "This is one of the reasons why [Nkunda's group] stopped talking with the government," says Van Woudenberg. "They felt that the government is padding its support...."

Monday's talks in Nairobi came as the European Union wrangled in Brussels over whether to support the UN's call for an EU force to boost the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo.

The temporary "bridging force" would help provide security, and if the two sides can agree to a cease-fire, there is a chance for longer-term peace talks to start once more and for hundreds of thousands of internal refugees to return home.

"If they manage to get a cease-fire, that will be quite important," says Van Woudenberg. "But these things are unpredictable, and if they can't get a cease-fire, that would be a real blow to finding a solution to the conflict."