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Funds could scupper Congo talks

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) -- Crucial peace talks aimed at ending a ruinous civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo will begin next week in Ethiopia under a cloud of uncertainty due to a lack of funds.

With the world's attention firmly fixed on U.S.-led air strikes on Afghanistan, mediators say the negotiations to end a three-year conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives may grind to a halt due to a shortfall in funds.

"We can't stop in the middle of sentence because the money has run out," U.N. mediator and former Botswanan President Ketumile Masire told Reuters.

"Hope springs eternal in the human race, I'm still hopeful that something will happen."

At stake is a possible chance to end a war that has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters and sucked in the former Zaire's neighbours to create Africa's biggest war.

Masire said donor pledges had fallen far short of the $4 million to $5 million needed to fund a planned 45 to 50 days of talks, and promises of extra funds had yet to materialise just days before the opening ceremony due on Monday.

The talks, dubbed the inter-Congolese dialogue, bring together representatives from the government, rebel groups, unarmed political opposition parties and civic groups in the neutral venue of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

The dialogue forms a central pillar of a 1999 cease-fire accord in which warring parties agreed to work towards a new political order in the Congo, although there are few concrete proposals on the shape of such a system.

"It's a dialogue, we cannot have a fixed position," said Valentin Mubake, a spokesman for UDPS, one of the main unarmed opposition groups in the Congo.

"It's not like a restaurant where the dishes are prepared in advance."

On a knife-edge

Fighting has largely ceased along the frontlines in Congo, but analysts fear the government or the rebels may be tempted to take up arms again if the talks stall.

"The government is optimistic," the Congolese government's Information Minister Kikaya Bin Karubi told Reuters. "We want the Congolese to meet to talk amongst themselves."

Efforts to bring peace have gained momentum since January, when Joseph Kabila took over from his murdered father as president, accepting Masire's mediation and the deployment of U.N. peace monitors.

A long-stalled cease-fire finally took root earlier this year, and most warring parties have begun withdrawing troops from forward positions.

But fighting has continued in the interior, as rebels clash with "Mai Mai" militia groups loyal to the government and a diverse range of gunmen roaming Congo's vast wilderness.

The largest rebel group in the Congo, the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy, battled militia groups in eastern Congo last week in the fiercest fighting in months.

Both the government and rebel groups must also balance the demands of foreign backers, who joined the war to protect their borders or taste a share of the country's vast mineral wealth.

The war started in 1998 when Rwanda and Uganda invaded to topple former president Laurent Kabila, who they accused of harbouring militias responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Since then, armies from Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia have supported the Congo government.


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