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DR CONGO

Sarkozy praises Kabila for reaching out to Rwanda

4 min

During his visit to DR Congo, French President Nicolas Sarkozy congratulated President Joseph Kabila on reducing tension with former enemy Rwanda and called for a "new momentum" in peaceful cooperation between Great Lakes countries.

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AFP - French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Thursday for a "new momentum" on cooperation in Africa's troubled Great Lakes region, in a keynote speech to lawmakers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sarkozy made the appeal in an address to a special sitting of parliament in Kinshasa on the first leg of a lightning three-nation visit which later took him across the Congo river to neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.

The French president used the speech to call on DR Congo, the world's biggest francophone country, to "work together" with its Great Lakes neighbours for mutual benefit and end conflict in its perennially-troubled eastern provinces.

"In the east, it seems to me more necessary than ever to generate projects which unite. Why not give a new momentum to what already exists... and why not take it further?" said Sarkozy,

He also used an address to praise his Congolese counterpart Jospeh Kabila for a "courageous decision" to mount a joint military operation with Rwanda in January to oust Hutu rebels in eastern Congo.

Kabila was strongly criticised for embracing Kigali -- seen by many in Congo's eastern provinces as the enemy -- even though the aim was to clear the region of rebel forces that each government has accused the other of supporting and which have been at the heart of the region's conflicts for more than a decade.

Sarkozy said he saw in the move "the first fruits of a real re-foundation of the region."

"The peace and prosperity of Europe was constructed on these bases," said the French president, who proposed the establishment of a "regional agency for development and planning" and said Paris would host a donor conference next year to support economic cooperation in the Great Lakes region.

His visit had been overshadowed by comments to diplomats in January in which he raised the idea of Kinshasa sharing its vast mineral wealth with tiny Rwanda as part of a fresh approach to ending the violence.

In a carefully-worded speech, Sarkozy pressed his case for greater cooperation while avoiding mention of "sharing," seen by an outraged Kinshasa in January as a desire to cede territory and mineral rights for Rwanda's benefit.

The Congolese media suggested Sarkozy wanted a "Balkanisation" of DR Congo.

Sarkozy stressed Congo's "inalienable sovereignty" and said its destiny "is not to be the weak link of central Africa but its backbone."

The speech was welcomed by Kabila, who declared his country "faces with optimism the gamble of consolidating peace, especially in the east of the country, as well as the reconstruction of the entire national territory."

The French president arrived in Kinshasa earlier Thursday at the start of a tour which will end in Niger on Friday.

He is being accompanied by a delegation of French business leaders.

French nuclear giant Areva signed a deal Thursday to develop uranium mining in DR Congo.

Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon signed the agreement for mining research and exploration with Congolese Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu, on the sidelines of Sarkozy's visit.

Paris had been accused here of seeking to use DR Congo's mineral wealth to help restore its relations with Rwanda. Paris and Kigali have been at odds for years over who bears responsibility for Rwanda's 1994 genocide that killed some 800,000 people in a matter of months.

"There is no French peace plan, no plan to share riches, it is not the right moment," aides in Sarkozy's office said ahead of the visit. "The president simply wants to indicate that, in order to have a durable peace, one must accelerate regional cooperation."

One of the most prominent critics of Kabila's overture to Rwanda, parliament speaker Vital Kamerhe, was forced to resign on Wednesday, the eve of Sarkozy's visit.

The French government are keen that Kabila build on overtures to Kigali. "He mustn't stop at that. He must commit now to a real regional cooperation," a member of Sarkozy's entourage said.

Sarkozy was due to continue his African mini-tour later Thursday, with a visit to Congo Brazzaville before travelling to Niger on Friday.

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