(AP) - One of Congo's fiercest warlords sent a delegation on Sunday to meet with members of the government on the first day of peace talks in the provincial outpost of Goma.
The delegation of 10 rebels loyal to Laurent Nkunda, who commands an army of over 1,000 men, arrived in Goma under the guard of U.N. troops. The rebels declared a cease-fire last week.
Although Congo last year held its first free election in over 40 years, the enormous, jungle-covered country has struggled to control its lawless eastern province, where numerous militias vie for land.
A spokesman for the delegation said its No. 1 concern is the continued presence in Congo of the extremist Hutu militia FDLR, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda. The militia fled to the forested hills of eastern Congo after being chased out of neighboring Rwanda, where it is accused of orchestrating the 1994 genocide of half a million Tutsis.
Nkunda is a Tutsi and claims he is fighting to protect Congo's Tutsis. Congo's government calls him an enemy of the state and, late last year, launched a military offensive to force Nkunda's men out of the jungle.
The army was forced to retreat, emboldening Nkunda's rebels. His army has been accused of leading a brutal rebel movement characterized by the use of child soldiers, the taking of girls as sexual slaves and the rape of village women.
The rape of children, including infants, has become alarmingly common, as has the raiding of schools by Nkunda's men to recruit child soldiers, according to aid groups.
Upon arriving in Goma, Nkunda spokesman Ngeve Kambasa said the Hutu militiamen are wanted in Rwanda for crimes against humanity and should not allowed to set up a base in Congo.
"We have come for peace, but we need to first resolve the problem of the FDLR before we can have peace," Kambasa told The Associated Press.
"It is unacceptable that this malevolent force be allowed to operate on the back of our population here," he added. "For us there is nothing to negotiate about the departure of the FDLR," he said.
President Joseph Kabila pulled out of the peace talks at the last minute, and instead appointed Interior Minister Denis Kalume as his representative.
"Finding a solution to these problems is a necessity," Kalume said. "It's a national priority."
He dismissed suggestions that the peace conference was about "power sharing" or "amending the constitution" - a reference to possible demands by armed groups.
He added that all groups would have a voice. "It's also not about one person," he said, in a veiled reference to Nkunda, who has dominated the peace talks.