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Congo rebel leader to give rally

world Updated: Nov 22, 2008 10:35 IST

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Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is expected to give his first public rally Saturday in the newly conquered eastern Congo territory his fighters seized during a lightening advance last month.

Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the rally will take place at a stadium in Rutshuru, the biggest town in the area Nkunda's men control. Rutshuru is about 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of the lakeside provincial capital, Goma.

Fighting between government forces and Nkunda's men surged in August, sparking a humanitarian crisis that has uprooted more than 250,000 people from their homes and prompted the UN to approve more than 3,000 more peacekeepers for the troubled Central African nation.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect Congo's minorities, especially ethnic Tutsis, from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is more interested in raw power and accuse his forces of committing multiple human rights abuses. Congo's army and other militias have also been accused of pillage, rape and extra-judicial killings.

Many civilians in the east see Nkunda as a puppet of Rwanda, which invaded Congo twice in the 1990s to eradicate the Hutu militias but got sidetracked in a quest for mineral wealth. In late October, Nkunda's fighters advanced just north of Goma, forcing Congo's army into a humiliating retreat. Rebels called a unilateral cease-fire, but sporadic clashes with the army and pro-government militias have continued.

The advance saw rebels seize the main road running north from Goma to Rutshuru, and enabled Nkunda to join his previously isolated stronghold of Kitchanga with a rebel zone further east along a volcanic mountain chain that straddles the borders of neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.

Most of the area is rural pastureland, and its greatest value lies in giving rebels a stronger hand to force the government to negotiate.

Today, rebels are digging in, collecting road taxes and replacing some town officials with their own members. Congolese rights groups say the rebels have also been forcibly recruiting young men and children into their ranks.

The UN's 17,000-strong peacekeeping mission has been criticized for failing to stop the violence.

New York-based International Rescue Committee said sexual violence was on the rise against women and girls at the sprawling camps at Kibit, just north of Goma, that house around 60,000 people. The agency said women and girls were being raped "both in and around the camp."

Late Friday, a group of aid agencies said they had conducted a survey showing that around 63 percent of the people displaced in the latest fighting had become separated from one more close relatives. They said over 26 percent had lost contact with a child and 17 percent with a husband or wife.

"Many of those we surveyed have no idea if their children, spouses and other close relatives are alive or dead," said Brendan Gormley, chief executive of Britain's Disasters and Emergency Committee.