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Renegade DRC Commander Declares Conditional Cease-Fire - 2004-06-01

A renegade commander says he has declared a conditional cease-fire in the Democratic Republic of Congo to allow a top government official to assess the situation in the border city of Bukavu. But the United Nations says fighting continues north of the city, between the renegades and the Congolese army.

The renegade commander, Laurent Nkunda, is leading a group from the north toward Bukavu. He says he would halt his advance to allow a Congolese vice president, Azarias Ruberwa, to assess the situation there.

Mr. Nkunda organized a group of around 1,000 fighters, mainly from the Tutsi ethnic-minority tribe known as Banyamulenge, to march to Bukavu when fighting broke out last week between rival factions of the Congolese army.

The Congolese army joined forces with several former rebel factions when a transitional government was established last year, but power struggles between the groups triggered the clashes. Ethnic Banyamulenge also have complained of persecution by the new national army.

A U.N. spokesman, Sebastien Lapierre, said there is concern about the continued fighting between Mr. Nkunda's force and the Congolese army, but that the situation in Bukavu is now calm.

"People are circulating freely, and some markets have reopened. So there is a general sense of normality. However, everybody does remain concerned about the advance of a column of soldiers led by Laurent Nkunda, who is arriving from the north. There has been some engagements between these troops and those of the Congolese army who have deployed north of Bukavu to meet them. So as we speak, there is still fighting going on up there. The Congolese are still resisting the advance of the column," he said.

Mr. Lapierre said a cease-fire is being negotiated in Bukavu between Colonel Jules Mutebutsi, who is the leader of the dissident soldiers there, and regular troops loyal to Brigadier General Mbuza Mabe.

Mutebutsi's men who have been ordered to contain themselves in the residences have done so. On the U.N. side we are continuing to patrol the city and to enforce the instruction to Mutebutsi's men to contain his troops," he said. "Some arrests have been made. As a result, as I have said, the town is very calm."

Thousands of Congolese, mostly ethnic Banyamulenge, fled to neighboring Rwanda when the fighting erupted. Mr. Nkunda says he will stop his troops when the refugees are returned to their homes and the bodies of civilians killed in the clashes are recovered.