By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) - Rebels and government officials from the Democratic Republic of Congo traded threats and accusations on the first full session of peace talks in neighboring Uganda on Tuesday, casting a shadow over hopes for a settlement.
Western and African powers are banking on the negotiations to end the M23 rebels' revolt in Congo's volatile east, where political and ethnic rifts, together with competition over vast mineral resources, threaten to ignite a regional war.
The Uganda-brokered talks formally opened on Sunday. But squabbling started minutes after the sides' opening press statements and the M23 rebels boycotted the proceedings on Monday.
During the first session on Tuesday, DRC Foreign Affairs Minister Raymond Tshibanda described the insurgent group as "a negative force that must be neutralized and eradicated".
Later in the day, the M23 rebels' head of external relations, Rene Abandi, emerged from the talks and accused the government of preparing for more violence.
"FARDC (the government army) is reinforcing its positions in North Kivu and preparing for war and we have reports showing that," Abandi told Reuters.
"SLIM CHANCE OF SUCCESS"
The talks were called after the regional International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) secured a deal last month for the rebels to pull put of Goma, provincial capital of DRC's eastern North Kivu province.
Analysts said world powers needed to put more pressure on both sides if they wanted the talks to succeed.
"The gulf between the two sides is big and I think the chances for a durable compromise are slim," said Jason Stearns, director of the Rift Valley Institute think-tank.
Stearns called for the involvement of international mediators, backed by the United Nations and the African Union.
"There's a good chance this dialogue will come to a dead end and military operations resume if we don't get ICGLR and other external actors to direct pressure at the two sides," said an analyst from the International Crisis Group who asked not to be named.
The rebels, led by Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court, initially said they took up arms over what they called the government's failure to respect a 2009 peace agreement that saw them integrated into the army.
They later broadened the scope of their movement, declaring their aim to "liberate" the entire Central African nation and topple DRC President Joseph Kabila.
U.N. experts say Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, an accusation dismissed by both countries.
The negotiations got off to a bad start on Sunday when the rebels used their opening statement to accuse Kabila's government of killing 46 soldiers from a former rebel group in Dungu in DRC's Oriental province in 2009.
Tshibanda threatened to walk out of the talks and said the rebels had "a Kalashnikov as their only mode of legitimacy".
Under the ICGLR deal that set up the talks, Kabila promised to look into the grievances of the rebels while M23 agreed to pull back from Goma and Sake, which they captured after advancing from their bastion on the border with Uganda.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Andrew Heavens)