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Dissident Congolese General Warns of War As Troops Move

Army troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo are sending in more reinforcements in the troubled east of the country after a week of heavy fighting. Dissident leader General Laurent Nkunda says his forces are under military attack, but the government says it is trying to stabilize the situation through negotiation, rather than use of force. Efforts to integrate Nkunda's fighters into Congo's reunified post-conflict army have repeatedly failed. Selah Hennessy reports from the VOA West and Central Africa in Dakar.

Democratic Republic of Congo Defense Minister Chikez Diemu told VOA the Congolese government wants to stabilize North Kivu through dialogue.

"The government's role [is] to show its commitment to peaceful dialogue [as a] means to find a durable solution as far as the security is concerned," said Chikez Diemu.

But renegade army general Laurent Nkunda, reached on his cell phone, says the government has been flying soldiers and ammunition into the region since Friday and refuses to negotiate.

"For us, we think that the government has stopped the peace process, I think they chose for a war," said Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda repeated his assertions he is protecting ethnic Tutsis in the region against the army, which he says is allied with former ethnic-Hutu rebels from Rwanda.

"We decided to protect ourselves and our people and we must die even if we are not capable to do many things," he said.

Fighting broke out last week after four army soldiers were killed in an ambush. The Congolese army denies it has any links to former Hutu rebels, but it recently stopped a military campaign to chase them down.

International Crisis Group senior analyst Jason Stearns says renewed unrest followed a government decision to dismantle some mixed brigades, made up of army troops and Nkunda's men.

He says the government hoped Nkunda's power would be diluted if the former general's troops were absorbed into the army, but he says that plan backfired.

"Nkunda has grown in strength," said Jason Stearns. "He has received not only supplies and salaries from the national army but also recruits from across the border in Rwanda. He is in a very strong position. The terrain is very very difficult, it is very hilly terrain, it is a terrain that Nkunda is very used to."

Nkunda and the government in Kigali deny they have any links.

Stearns says the Congolese army, which has failed in previous military attacks against Nkunda's men, is disorganized and unruly.

"The Congolese army has some serious institutional problems, financial problems, and problems of discipline," he said.

Stearns warns that a major concern is that the current stand-off could escalate into a regional conflict. He says there is a risk that if the Congolese army is unable to defeat Nkunda's fighters alone, it may make a strategic alliance with the former Hutu rebels.

"If there is such an alliance, then that could lead very rapidly to a regionalization of the conflict," said Stearns. "Rwanda, I think, would be fairly strongly inclined to start supporting Nkunda more strongly. And therefore you would have a regionalization of the conflict that could leave irreparable damage between the Congolese government and the Rwandan government."

Journalists in eastern Congo report that three brigades with up to six-thousand troops are currently heading to North Kivu. But they emphasize that none have taken up attacking positions, and that after initial exchanges of heavy fire, the situation has not led to more fighting.

In Kinshasa, Rwanda's Foreign Affairs Minister Charles Murigande started a three-day working visit to meet with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and other top officials. Murigande said that he was trying to help end the insecurity in eastern Congo.