Congolese rebels launched attacks against government positions in eastern Congo on Sunday, overshadowing attempts by Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian president, to push both sides towards talks.
Mr Obasanjo, the UN special envoy to Congo, is spearheading efforts to defuse the crisis in the east of the country, where a two-month offensive by rebels loyal to Laurent Nkunda, the renegade general, has raised fears of a wider regional war.
At a meeting in Mr Nkunda’s home village of Jomba, the rebel general – who swapped his fatigues for a silver-grey suit – told Mr Obasanjo he was willing to respect a ceasefire and talk to the government.
Mr Nkunda’s talk of a truce is, however, at odds with the realities on the ground. Several hundred of his troops have advanced north-west from the town of Rutshuru in the past two days, culminating in Sunday’s fighting some 180km north of the eastern city of Goma, according to independent witnesses travelling in the area.
The latest rebel attacks appeared to suggest that Mr Nkunda is seeking to expand the swathe of territory he has seized in eastern Congo in the past few weeks, perhaps to bolster his negotiating position ahead of talks with the government.
Mr Obasanjo, who stepped down as Nigeria’s president last year after eight years in office, said both Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president, and Mr Nkunda were ready to send representatives to preliminary discussions in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
“I expect exploratory discussion, I expect informal discussion,” Mr Obasanjo told a news conference in Goma after his visit to Mr Nkunda, without giving a timeframe.
Diplomats hope to defuse the crisis in eastern Congo by persuading both sides to gradually withdraw forces from tense front lines while initiating talks to seek a more permanent political solution to long-standing tensions in the east of the vast country.
Mr Nkunda has cast himself as a defender of the ethnic Tutsi minority.