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The rebel leader in eastern DR Congo wants peace talks and has agreed to the establishment of a three-way body to monitor a ceasefire, the UN special envoy said amid fresh fighting Sunday.
Rebel leader general Laurent Nkunda "reaffirms that he believes in a ceasefire being implemented and respected by both sides," former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo said in Goma, capital of Nord-Kivu province.
Obasanjo's groundbreaking meeting with Nkunda came as UN officials and aid organisations warned that the plight of an estimated 250,000 displaced people displaced was becoming increasingly desperate.
Fighting continued Sunday between government forces and Nkunda's CNDP rebels in a strategic town and a patrol of United Nations forces nearby found itself trapped in crossfire.
The Tutsi rebel leader appeared to rule out the possibility that the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUC) might be part of a tripartite committee that would monitor a ceasefire.
Two of the members would be representatives of the Nkunda's rebel CNDP and of the government, said Obasanjo, who was appointed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon last week.
"That third group, I thought it would be MONUC, but he objected to MONUC as an institution, he doesn't object to an individual," Obasanjo told a news conference after his two-hour meeting with Nkunda deep in rebel-held territory at Jomba, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) northeast of Goma.
"He accepts the UN special envoy as a mediator between his side and the government side," he added.
"He wants the government to accept responsibility for a ceasefire by what he called government allies. I said, 'You cannot accept responsibility for the action of your allies. We should go for what I suggested: a tripartite committee on verification on ceasefire violations.' He agreed to that."
Nkunda's rebels claim that government forces are being aided by Hutu rebels and local militiamen.
Nkunda, who was a general in the Congolese army before turning against the government, had changed out of his military uniform into a light grey suit with a white shirt and red tie. Obasanjo was in traditional Nigerian dress.
The former Nigerian president, who was also once a general, briefly inspected Nkunda's soldiers before the two men walked hand-in-hand into a small building to begin their talks.
"He agreed to maintaining corridors for addressing the humanitarian crisis but, he said, 'subject to the government removing road-blocks'," Obasanjo reported.
Nkunda said after his meeting with Obasanjo: "Today is a great day for us because we were losing many men and now we have a message of peace. We should work with this mission."
It was unclear whether Nkunda was referring to losses among his rebel forces or on both sides.
Obasanjo said after the talks that "I know now what he wants. I know that a ceasefire is like dancing the tango: It cannot be done by one only."
Asked about a possible meeting between Nkunda and DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, Obasanjo replied: "Not now. I expect exploratory discussions, formal discussions."
The meeting took place as fresh fighting flared between rebels and government forces about 60 kilometres (35 miles) to the north, near the strategic town of Kanyabayonga, MONUC said.
The fighting continued into the afternoon after a brief lull, with rebels replying to government artillery barrages with rockets 20 kilometres (12 miles) southeast of Rwindi, MONUC spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
Dietrich later added that an Indian soldier was wounded and material damage suffered during the shelling.
In a separate clash in the same area a UN patrol found itself caught between firing by both sides. Both MONUC and the government have recently reinforced their military presence in Kanyabayonga.
The head of the UN military operation criticised government forces for being too quick to abandon territory, as in Kanyabayong.
"I am not saying that the army is in flight, I am saying that it is in a difficult situation," Senegalese General Babacar Gaye told AFP in an interview in Kinshasa on Saturday.
Gaye said an extra 1,000 MONUC troops would be deployed in Nord-Kivu within the next 10 days, bringing the number there to 6,000.