DR Congo Rebels, Government to Start Talks Friday

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Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo will start talks with Kinshasa's government in Kampala on Friday, to "resolve the conflict" in the volatile and mineral-rich east, a Ugandan official said.

"Delegations from the DRC government and M23 (rebels) shall begin preliminary meetings tomorrow," Ugandan government spokesman Fred Opolot told reporters Thursday.

The rebels' lightning capture of the mining hub of Goma on November 20, eight months after the army mutineers launched an uprising against the government, had sparked fears of a wider war and a major humanitarian crisis.

M23 fighters, largely from the ethnic Tutsi community, pulled out of Goma at the weekend. They are expected to have a raft of potential demands, including major political reform for the war-weary region.

Initial meetings will work focus on fixing the "ground rules and working framework" for the subsequent main body of talks, with negotiations on which observers would attend those talks, Opolot added.

Kinshasa's delegation is already in Kampala, headed by Foreign Minister Raymond Tshibanda as well as members of the national assembly and senate.

M23's political leader Jean-Marie Runiga said his guerrillas were due to leave for Kampala later on Thursday.

But DR Congo's president Joseph Kabila, who the rebels have said should step down, is expected to attend a meeting in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam along with leaders and officials of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC).

South African President Jacob Zuma is due to attend the two-day meeting, which is expected to focus on the crisis in eastern DR Congo.

The bloc includes nations such as Angola and Zimbabwe -- countries that backed the Kinshasa during the 1996-2003 Congolese civil wars -- but does not include either Rwanda or Uganda, who are accused of backing the M23 rebels.

Pope Benedict XVI this week called for "dialogue and reconciliation" between the warring sides, speaking of the plight of thousands of people in the mineral-rich province of North Kivu where thousands have fled their homes.

Tensions remain high in the war-blighted region, and both government soldiers and rebels have been accused of civilian killings, rape and looting during the latest unrest.

Eastern DR Congo, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, was the cradle of back-to-back wars that drew in much of the region from 1996 to 2003 and were fought largely over its vast wealth of copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key mobile phone component.

The instability there has been exacerbated by the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when Hutus implicated in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi victims fled across the border after Tutsi leader Paul Kagame came to power.

The M23 was founded by former fighters in a Tutsi rebel group whose members were integrated into the regular army under a 2009 peace deal that they claim was never fully implemented. Several of its leaders have been hit by U.N. sanctions over alleged atrocities.

Both Rwanda and Uganda are accused of backing the fighters, with a U.N. report quoting sources that over 1,000 Rwandan troops fought alongside the rebels, while Kampala provided logistical support.

Kigali and Kampala have strongly denied involvement in the conflict.

The role of Rwanda and Uganda in brokering any deal will also be key, but finding a lasting solution to one the continent's most intractable conflicts will be no simple task.

"What is not clear is the agenda of the negotiations, because the M23's agenda seems to be very stretchy," said Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Aid agencies are struggling to cope with the region's newly displaced, with some 285,000 people having fled their homes since the rebels began their uprising in April.

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