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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 01:39 GMT
Eastern DR Congo rebels to disarm
By Karen Allen
BBC News, Bunia

Militia fighters in Ituri in June 2003
Under the deal, militia fighters will be integrated into the army
The last of three rebel groups in Ituri district in east DR Congo has agreed to disarm, potentially paving the way for permanent peace in the troubled region.

The accord is the first step to ensure that up to 5,000 militiamen hand in their arms in exchange for an amnesty.

An estimated 60,000 people have died in Ituri in the past eight years as militia groups battled to control the country's vast mineral wealth.

The deal follows historic polls which saw Joseph Kabila elected president.

'Beginning of the end'

In a dimly lit room, representatives of three rebel groups signed a deal which could draw to a close fighting in one of the bloodiest corners of DR Congo.

This latest deal, which comes in the wake of the first free elections in more than 40 years, means that all three militia groups operating in the area have agreed to put down their weapons and become integrated into the regular army.

Map of DR Congo

The process has been controversial, with former rebel commanders offered top posts.

But Brigadier General Christian Houdet from the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo said it was a historic day.

"It's the beginning of the end," he said. "We have meeting, we have discussion, days and nights with all these militias and right now, tonight, it is the accomplishment of all this process. And we are very, very happy with that."

Under the agreement, the armed groups are expected to release an estimated 700 child soldiers in the region and begin assembling at transit sites over the coming weeks to disarm.

Cobra Matata, who commands the rebel FRPI (Ituri Patriotic Resistance Front) group, was the last of the warlords to sign the deal.

It comes as the Supreme Court earlier this week confirmed that Joseph Kabila had won the presidency in the country's first democratic elections in more than 40 years.

Seventeen thousand UN peacekeepers operate in Congo, which has seen four million people killed in a bitter civil war.

Although they are hailing this latest deal as an important milestone, no one is denying the fact that there is still a long march towards achieving a durable peace.

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