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Congo Rebel Faction Holds Landmark Talks With Government

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GOMA, Congo — The leader of a splinter rebel faction in eastern Congo said Friday his forces would stop fighting the government and the two sides would work together to battle Rwandan militias at the heart of the conflict.

Bosco Ntaganda held landmark talks with Interior Minister Celestin Mboyo in the eastern town of Goma and said in a statement afterward that his forces are now "at the disposal of the Congolese armed forces high command."

It was unclear, however, what effect _ if any _ the move will have on the deeply entrenched and complex crisis in eastern Congo. Though Ntaganda's statement was signed by 10 other rebel officials who identified themselves as colonels and lieutenant colonels, nobody knows how powerful Ntaganda really is or how many forces he control.

Ntaganda was the chief of staff of main Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose fighters have for years battled the government and thousands of Rwandan militias in Congo whose leaders helped orchestrate Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Ntaganda split from Nkunda this month and says he ousted the rebel leader from power, but Nkunda denies the claim and says he is still in charge of the rebel movement.

Ntaganda also is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, for the alleged forced conscription of child soldiers in the Ituri region of eastern Congo about five years ago.

Neighboring Rwanda's powerful army chief of staff, James Kabarebe, attended the Goma meeting Friday. Nkunda has been strongly backed by Rwanda, and it was unclear if Kabarebe's presence meant that backing may be ending. Nkunda's faction could not be reached for comment.

Ntaganda said his fighters and the government were working up a plan to fight the Rwandan Hutu militiamen whose existence has given Tutsi rebels a raison d'etre. The government has been loosely allied with the Rwandan militias in the past.

Ntaganda spokesman Jean Munyampenda said the Rwandan army would participate in any offensive against Rwandan militias. Rwandan officials could not immediately be reached for comment and Kabarebe did not speak to the media.

In the capital, Kinshasa, government spokesman Lambert Mende welcomed Ntaganda's turnaround, calling it a "remarkable evolution."

Years of sporadic violence intensified in east Congo late last year, when Nkunda's rebels forced the army into a humiliating retreat, advancing toward the outskirts of the regional capital, Goma. The fighting displaced more than 250,000 people.

Recent peace talks in Nairobi aimed at ended the crisis have been complicated by the rebel split, but Ntaganda said Friday he would now support the talks. Ntaganda had said previously he would not abide by their outcome.

Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi, says his rebels are fighting to protect Congo's minority Tutsis from the Hutu militia that fled here after helping perpetrate the 1994 genocide that killed more than half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. But his critics contend he is more interested in power and Congo's mineral wealth.

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Associated Press Writer Eddy Isango contributed to this report from Kinshasa.