Page last updated at 00:06 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Face-to-face with DR Congo rebel chief

By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu, 10 November 2008
Laurent Nkunda claims to be protecting his Tutsi community from attacks

High above sea level, nestling on the stunningly beautiful Massisi Plateau of eastern Congo, lies the village of Kilolirwe.

The dirt roads leading the way, lined with eucalyptus trees, are cut out of black volcanic earth.

It is a place of soaring hills and verdant green pastureland, often covered in mountain mists.

It is also just a few kilometres from the headquarters of one of the country's most feared rebel leaders, General Laurent Nkunda, whose recent military offensive in the region has displaced a quarter of a million people.

I reached Kilolirwe by crossing the front line between government troops and rebels, which in this area lies just outside the town of Sake, 25km (15 miles) west of Goma.

Here, the government forces have a checkpoint just 2km away from the first rebel position.

A small detachment of Indian soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force is between them.

We had requested an interview with the general.

Clad in smart military uniform and surrounded by a clutch of heavily-armed rebel soldiers, Gen Nkunda claimed he would overthrow the government in the capital Kinshasa if Congolese President Joseph Kabila refused power-sharing talks.

It is a demand that President Kabila has already rejected, saying that talking to the rebel leader would be "unconstitutional".

I asked General Nkunda if he was seriously suggesting that he would take over the whole of Congo.

Peering through his thin-rimed spectacles, the tall ethnic Tutsi general stared at me for a moment and bluntly replied: "Of course."

What right did a rebel leader have, I asked, to demand anything from the elected government of Congo?

People queue for aid at the Kibati refugee camp outside Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (09/11/2008)
CNDP: Gen Nkunda's Tutsi rebels - 6,000 fighters
FDLR: Rwandan Hutus - 6-7,000
Mai Mai: pro-government militia - 3,500
Monuc: UN peacekeepers - 800 (17,000 nationwide)
DRC army - 50,000 (nationwide)
Source: UN, military experts

"I am a rebel, but the way to resolve the problem is to negotiate," he replied.

The "problem", in Gen Nkunda's eyes, has several strands.

A key strand is what he perceives as the poor treatment DR Congo's ethnic Tutsis have suffered over the years; he says that defending Tutsis is the reason he took up arms.

In his view the presence in DR Congo of ethnic Hutu militias alleged to have been involved in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis across the border in neighbouring Rwanda is, today, a real threat to Congolese Tutsis.

The links between the Tutsi cousins on both sides of the border between Congo and Rwanda have often led to accusations - by DR Congo and some western governments - that Rwanda backs the rebels.

Kigali and Gen Nkunda routinely deny the charges - and the general duly obliged again when I asked him the question.

"I cannot be a tool of Rwanda," he said. "I am Congolese and proud of it."

Gen Nkunda's threat against Kinshasa is a typically ambitious one from a man who has rejected normal politics and gone for a military option.

The threat may remain just a threat, for now, aimed at raising the stakes ahead of any possible talks.

Congolese government troops - 7 November picture
Any new attempt at foreign intervention could be very risky

But it certainly comes at an extremely tense time, when other African countries are threatening to intervene militarily on the side of the Congolese government.

During the 1990s at least half a dozen African states had armies in Congo backing their favoured local warlords.

That provoked a regional war which contributed to the deaths of five million people over 10 years - from fighting, famine, displacement and neglect.

Any new attempt at foreign intervention in the current conflict would be extremely risky.

Map of eastern DR Congo

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