The leader of the rebel faction besieging a provincial capital in eastern Congo said Thursday he wanted to have direct negotiations with the country's government in an effort to put an end to future fighting, and to discuss economic and security issues.
Rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda unilaterally called a ceasefire late Wednesday that put an end to most of the violence that has flared since his followers began a four-day offensive in the eastern province of North Kivu.
He wants additional security for ethnic Tutsis in the Congo, and he is concerned about a deal with China that would give the rising Asian power access to the Congo's brimming mineral reserves, he told the Associated Press by telephone.
"We want peace for people in the region," Nkunda said after halting his advance on Goma, the capital of North Kivu, close to border with Rwanda.
In another interview, with Reuters, he said an independent mediator would be a prerequisite for any peace talks.
Nkunda's comments come a day after chaos hit the North Kivu capital as his rebels advanced. Tens of thousands of residents, refugees and government soldiers fled Goma. When the sun went down, drunk Congo army soldiers pillaged and raped in Goma, killing at least nine people in their homes, according to UN Radio Okapi.
Nkunda, with about 10,000 rebels under his command, has said he will take Goma. But so far he has heeded UN demands to stay out of the city.
Nkunda told Associated Press he demands the disarmament of a Rwandan Hutu militia that he says works with the government and preys on his minority Tutsi people.
He alleges the Congolese government, led by President Joseph Kabila, has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis in the 1994 genocide.
"It's not acceptable for government soldiers to be fighting alongside genociders," Nkunda said.
In the interview, he also voiced his opposition to a $9 billion US deal that allows China access to Congo's vast mineral reserves in exchange for infrastructure improvements.
Under the deal, the joint venture will have the rights to extract 9.6 million tonnes of copper and more than 500,000 tonnes of cobalt.
In return, Congo will get $6 billion US worth of new roads, two hydroelectric dams, hospitals, schools and a railway. The remaining $3 billion US will be invested in mining infrastructure.
Nkunda began rebellion 3 years ago
Nkunda launched a low-level rebellion three years ago, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded Tutsis. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-brokered ceasefire, he resumed fighting in August, saying the deal was slanted too much in favour of the Congo government.
Congo has charged Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture, and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.
The United Nations has only 6,000 of its 17,000-strong Congo peacekeeping force in the east because of unrest in other provinces. It says the force is badly overstretched and urgently needs reinforcement.
Violence in the east of the country has created a humanitarian crisis.
A total of between 1.4 million and two million people have been displaced since 2007 by fighting in the North Kivu province, according to UN estimates.
EU to debate whether to send troops
South African military expert Henri Boshoff, of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said a highly trained force must be deployed to Congo within five or six days, or else "it will be too late." Only the European Union, he said, has a force capable of doing this.
European leaders, meanwhile, are set to express widely differing opinions over whether to send troops to the embattled country at a summit scheduled for Friday.
While France and Belgium have both said they favour intervention, Germany and Britain have expressed reluctance.
The European Union's security committee meeting about Congo will be held in Brussels, Belgium, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in Paris.
The top U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, arrived in Kinshasa to help find a political solution for Congo. She planned to meet with Kabila, and possibly to later travel to Rwanda to meet with President Paul Kagame.
The situation in Goma was calm Thursday. Government soldiers in trucks and UN peacekeepers in armoured cars patrolled the city. Almost all shops were shuttered and schools stayed closed, but people thronged the streets, discussing the crisis and buying vegetables by the road.