NAIROBI, Dec 8 – Congolese rebels opened peace negotiations with a government delegation in Nairobi on Monday in their first direct talks on ending the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The talks got under way around 3:30 pm (12:30 GMT) at the United Nations headquarters in the Kenyan capital, and officials said they could last until Wednesday.
"It’s an opportunity that should neither be lost nor wasted. Our aim is to see consensus on the way forward," said the UN special envoy to DR Congo, the former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.
Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula told the delegations at the outset of the talks that he hoped both sides would be able "to put aside your differences and realise that you have only one Congo, and that the international community is here with you to encourage and assist you."
"Please don’t let Africa and your country down," he added.
The government delegation is led by International and Regional Cooperation Minister Raymond Tshibanda, while the five-man rebel delegation is headed by Serge Kambasu Ngeve, the deputy executive secretary for the CNDP.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki is chairing the talks session, said Wetangula.
The rebel leader, ex-general Laurent Nkunda, has said he is only interested in direct talks with the Congolese government, outside of the broader Amani programme — the January accord signed by all Congolese rebel groups.
But Obasanjo said at the outset of Monday’s talks that the "door will not be closed to other armed groups," in a search for a negotiated solution to the crisis in eastern Congo.
Fighting since August 28 between government troops and National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels has displaced more than 250,000 people in eastern Nord-Kivu province.
Nkunda’s fighters have inflicted heavy losses on the Congolese army and have taken control of vast swathes of the fertile province after an offensive which has brought the rebels to within a few kilometres (miles) of the provincial capital Goma.
"A military solution is not an option. We appeal to your principles to make this dialogue a success. The eyes of the world are on you," said Obasanjo, addressing the delegations.
"Let us stop the haemorrhage and open a new chapter of durable peace and harmony. The current humanitarian crisis in North Kivu is a scar on the conscience of the world."
CNDP spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa threatened on Sunday to abandon the talks if the government included other groups.
In Brussels meanwhile, the European Union debated whether to dispatch peacekeepers to the country to bolster a weak UN force, amid clear divisions among member states over whether to plug a gap before the arrival of 3,000 UN reinforcements.
The United Nations wants the EU to supply troops as a "bridging force".
But no EU nation has been willing to step forward to lead the mission — which would plug a security gap until UN reinforcements arrive — and Britain and Germany in particular are against sending a force.
"This is a demand to think about the possibility of helping on the bridging process between the force which is now there and another few thousand that the United Nations is going to send," said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.