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Congo keen to sign peace deal; rebel response uncertain

M23 rebel fighters guard the venue of a news conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo January 3, 2013. REUTERS/James A
M23 rebel fighters guard the venue of a news conference in Bunagana in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo January 3, 2013. REUTERS/James A

By Jonny Hogg

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo said on Monday it would give eastern rebels amnesty and positions in the army if they agree by the end of this week to lay down their arms, but a rebel leader said more talks were needed.

The proposed deal is similar to previous attempts at ending the recurrent conflicts in Congo's mineral-rich east, where local politics, ethnic rivalries and tensions with neighboring Rwanda have simmered for nearly two decades.

A year-long M23 rebellion briefly seized the town of Goma, a provincial capital last year, a major embarrassment to both the government and United Nations peacekeepers supporting it.

But the insurgency has since split into two factions that have turned their guns on each other, playing into the hands of Congo's government even as it complicates on-off peace negotiations in neighboring Uganda.

A Reuters witness said fighting between the rival rebel factions was ongoing on Monday in Congo's eastern hills.

According to the government's draft peace plan, seen by Reuters, M23 fighters would hand in their weapons ahead of the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in their territory near Congo's border with Rwanda.

Rebels not facing prosecution would be integrated into the army while Congo's government would, in turn, speed up the return of Congolese ethnic Tutsi refugees from Rwanda. The deal also offers M23 fighters a limited amnesty.

"It's a working document ... on March 15 negotiations will be finished in one way or another, with or without a signature," Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said, without saying what would happen if the rebels did not sign.

Mende said the draft peace plan was a reworking of an agreement signed in 2009 to end a previous rebellion. The M23 rebels said they took up arms last year because of the failure to implement that deal.

REBELS SPLIT

The talks in Uganda to end the M23 rebellion, the latest in a string of Tutsi-led uprisings, have faltered, but rebel infighting in recent weeks appears to have opened up the possibility of a breakthrough with one side.

Rebels under insurgent commander Sultani Makenga have sidelined those loyal to rival commander Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A high-ranking M23 military source close to Makenga told Reuters the group was prepared to sign the deal with Kinshasa. However, the newly appointed head of the group's political wing said he was not aware of any deal.

"We don't know of its existence or content. We're surprised it's circulating in the media," Bertrand Bisimwa said.

"(The government) says it's in a hurry to sign an agreement with us but at the same time they've left the negotiating table ... Firstly we need to restart talks," he said.

Ntaganda was central to a 2009 peace deal, which saw him rejoin the army as a general, despite the charges brought against him by the ICC.

Government spokesman Mende declined to discuss specifics, but the latest deal would appear to prevent Ntaganda's re-integration this time. "You won't get back in if you're a criminal," he said.

There was renewed fighting between the two factions over the weekend and into Monday around 40 km (25 miles) north of Goma.

"We're still fighting, we're holding the same positions, but we're currently battling for the hills that overlook (the town of) Rumangabo," Colonel Seraphin Mirindi, a spokesman for Ntaganda's faction, told Reuters by telephone, with the sound of heavy weapons fire clearly audible.

"There have been many injured, many dead," he added.

Makenga's faction has vowed to arrest Ntaganda, but it remains unclear how they would do this.

President Joseph Kabila has repeatedly promised to bring stability to eastern Congo after decades of war, but a string of failed peace agreements have left the region haunted by rebel groups and mired in poverty.

Kabila is due in the Angolan capital Luanda on Tuesday for a three way meeting with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos and South African President Jacob Zuma to discuss the situation, the Angolan presidency said on Monday.

(Reporting by Chrispin Mvano in Goma and Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Bate Felix and Robin Pomeroy)

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