KINSHASA, Congo – A powerful rebel leader in eastern Congo called for a cease-fire Thursday as the army said the death toll from five days of clashes had risen to 122.
Laurent Nkunda, a warlord who commands thousands of fighters in the hills of North Kivu province, said fighting was taking place in areas populated by civilians.
"The army's bombs are falling on the civilian population. We're afraid worse things will happen if we're not careful," Nkunda told The Associated Press by telephone. "We are asking for it to stop so we can talk, because this is a problem that can only be resolved through dialogue. Arms will not solve anything."
On Wednesday, the army claimed to have pushed Nkunda's troops out of at least three villages in North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
Regional army commander Col. Delphin Kahindi said "a cease-fire is not a bad thing, but we'd want to know what comes after." He said the government was waiting for Nkunda's fighters to stop fighting and rejoin the national army by Oct. 15, an ultimatum President Joseph Kabila issued in September.
Kahindi expressed doubt about Nkunda's peace appeal, pointing out that Nkunda on Tuesday had promised a counteroffensive against government forces.
"We have control of the situation on almost all fronts," Kahindi said, adding that fighting was continuing Thursday at Mushake, about 30 miles west of the provincial capital, Goma.
The toll from fighting since Sunday had risen to 104 rebels and 18 soldiers killed, Kahindi said. Nkunda declined to comment on casualties.
A former army general-turned-warlord, Nkunda has been battling government forces on and off for close to a year. The two sides agreed to stop fighting and restart talks about a month ago, but new clashes erupted in late September and early October.
Fighting since Sunday alone has displaced at least 30,000 people. In the past year, around a half-million people have been displaced in North Kivu.
Nkunda, whose Tutsi ethnic group is a minority in Congo, quit the army and formed his own militia soon after Congo's war ended in 2002, claiming he needed to protect Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who took refuge in east Congo following Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
On Thursday, Nkunda accused the army of working alongside Rwandan Hutu rebels as well as Congolese Mai Mai militiamen, but Kahindi dismissed the claim, saying the two groups had attacked an army convoy in the east Thursday morning. He said 12 of the attackers were killed.
Congo's government has struggled — with little success — to establish authority over the lawless eastern regions thousands of miles from Kinshasa, the capital.
U.N. peacekeepers helped to end the 1998-2002 war in Congo that engulfed six neighboring countries. The nearly 18,000-member mission in Congo is the United Nations' largest peacekeeping operation.
In 2004, Nkunda briefly captured the city of Bukavu. His troops have been accused of torture and rape, and he is named in an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes.