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Thursday, January 7, 1999 Published at 23:23 GMT

World: Africa

Congo 'willing to meet rebels'

Rebels forces: May enter peace talks

Congolese President Laurent Kabila has for the first time offered to meet the leaders of the six-month-old rebellion in his country.

Mr Kabila said he would guarantee their safety. One of the rebel leaders, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, welcomed the offer.

Several previous regional mediation efforts foundered over the president's previous refusals to meet the rebels.

Since the start of the war in Congo, the rebels have always insisted that no peace was possible unless they were allowed to attend negotiations.

In a BBC interview, the rebel leader said he was glad Mr Kabila now recognised the rebels' right to exist, but said they would not accept conditions.

President Kabila said the meeting had to be in the capital Kinshasa. He also made clear that the fighting would continue for the time being.

BBC Africa Reporter Caroline Hawley says the unexpected offer of talks does, nonetheless, represent a significant step forward.

Until now, President Kabila had steadfastly refused to talk to the rebels, accusing them of being mere puppets of Uganda and Rwanda, who support them.

Hints of possible progress also came from the Zambian President, Frederick Chiluba, who has been attempting to mediate between the two sides.

He has announced that the rebels will - for the first time - be invited to peace talks due in Lusaka next week.

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