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African leaders start Congo peace talks in Mozambique

MAPUTO, Mozambique (Reuters) -- South African President Thabo Mbeki and six other African leaders started talks in Mozambique on Monday to try to kick-start a collapsing peace deal in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Six armies are waging a 3-year-old civil war in Africa's third-largest nation. Thousands have been killed and more than 1.5 million displaced in the fighting.

Counting the dead in Congo

Dubbed "Africa's World War One," the conflict pits Rwanda, Uganda and several rebel factions against the government of President Laurent Kabila, whose army is backed by Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.

Mbeki, who is chairing the talks, was joined by Kabila and foes Rwanda's Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni as well as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and host Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique.

Namibia was represented by Prime Minister Hage Geingob, and Angola sent Defense Minister Kundy Paihama.

Mbeki spokeswoman Tasneem Carrim said the presidents were to study a report compiled by their defense ministers, who met in Maputo over the last three days.

At the center of the defense ministers' report are the complex issues of disarming thousands of exiled Rwandan and Ugandan rebels in the Congo and getting foreign troops to pull back from current positions.

"This meeting is meant to study together how the Lusaka Peace Process can be brought into action. It will concentrate on the two issues of disarmament and troop withdrawals," an African diplomat in Maputo said.

All countries involved in the war signed a peace deal in the Zambian capital last year to end the conflict, which began in August 1998. But fighting has continued unabated.

Under terms of a deal reached at talks in Maputo in October, also chaired by Mbeki, Kabila's allies -- Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe -- agreed to pull back at least 15 kilometers (9 miles).

Uganda also agreed to the 15-kilometer pullback, while Rwanda said it would withdraw 200 kilometers (120 miles) from its current positions.

That deal was never implemented and instead fresh fighting has broken out across the former Zaire between government troops and rebel forces, and also among rebel factions.

Rwanda, Uganda and their rebel groups control the northern and eastern part of the former Belgian colony. The western half of the Congo is still held by Kabila and his allies.

Mbeki's efforts to bring peace in the Congo are being supplemented by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who earlier this month brokered a separate deal to end the fighting.

Gadhafi's deal involves stationing an African military force in the Congo to protect the Rwandan and Ugandan borders and disarm exiled Hutu rebels based there.

According to that plan, Ugandan, Rwandan and other foreign forces also would withdraw from Congo at an unspecified time.

Analysts have criticized both Mbeki and Gadhafi's peace plans for not including rebel groups fighting Kabila.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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