BULEUSA Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Rwandan rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo began what they claimed was the first step in disarming their fighters on Friday, but warned that continuing the process would depend on the government in Kigali agreeing to talks.
The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) said last month that they would "lay down their weaponry and consecrate themselves to political struggle."
About 100 fighters surrendered during a ceremony in North Kivu province, handing in weapons including some heavy artillery, according to a Reuters witness.
"With this act of good faith the international community is called to assume its responsibility to obtain a political dialogue among Rwandans," said FDLR president, General Victor Byiringiro.
Authorities in Rwanda have repeatedly rejected the possibility of negotiations with the FDLR, which Kigali considers a terrorist organization that espouses a genocidal ideology.
Composed in part of former soldiers and Hutu militia who fled into Congo after massacring around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda's 1994 genocide, the FDLR has since sought to topple the government of President Paul Kagame.
They are regularly accused of human rights abuses, including civilian massacres. And this week FDLR fighters burned homes and schools in North Kivu's Walikale district during clashes with a rival militia group, according to United Nations-sponsored radio.
Their presence along the border has also served as a pretext for Rwandan military interventions in Congo, helping fuel nearly two decades of conflict there that have killed millions.
Friday's ceremony was attended by representatives of Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, the South African Development Community (SADC), and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region.
The FDLR has on previous occasions said it was ready to disarm, only to later backtrack. And most officials remained cautious, however, and shied away from making pledges to support talks with the Rwandan government.
"There will be no negotiations with the FDLR. They have offered to surrender, and we will see if this process is effective," Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said.
Over 25,000 FDLR fighters have demobilized since 2002, but those numbers have slowed to a trickle in recent years. The estimated 2,000 remaining rebels have hidden themselves among communities in Congo's dense forests.
Last year, bolstered by a special Intervention Brigade with a robust mandate to carry out offensive operations, MONUSCO launched a military campaign against the remaining armed groups operating in the volatile, mineral-rich borderlands.
"We hope that the commanders join this process (of demobilization), not just the militiamen, because we have a mandate to neutralize armed groups and want to see an end to the FDLR in Congo," said one U.N. official, who asked not to be named.
Writing by Peter Jones; Editing by Joe Bavier and Lisa Shumaker