By Chrispin Mvano
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Senior members of a Rwandan Hutu rebel force based in eastern Congo said on Tuesday they had started laying down their arms and were ready for talks with Kigali, but U.N. peacekeepers said they had seen no signs of disarmament.
The claims by the FDLR rebel group came as U.N. forces in Democratic Republic of Congo prepared to target the insurgents in coming months after a successful campaign alongside Congolese government troops against local Tutsi-led rebels last year. Rwanda has repeatedly rejected calls for talks with the rebels.
The Rwandan rebels have been at the heart of two decades of conflict in eastern Congo since Rwanda's genocide. Their presence there has often been cited by Kigali as justification for sending its troops across the border.
While their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand in recent years, previous peace initiatives have floundered and they are seen as an obstacle to peace in the mineral-rich zone.
General Victor Byiringiro, the FDLR's interim leader also known as Gaston Iyamuremye, told French radio RFI this week that his men had started disarming but that they wanted African leaders to support talks with the government in Kigali.
"We can confirm our president's statement and we are carrying it (disarmament) out now," Colonel Wilson Irategeka, the FDLR's interim executive secretary, told Reuters on Tuesday.
"The international community must now help us to make Kigali ... accept negotiations with opposition political parties, including the FDLR," he added.
However, a spokesman for the 21,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO, said the rebels had in the past promised to disarm without doing so and that there was no evidence of it taking place this time.
"We are monitoring the situation of course, but to us this is nothing new," the spokesman said.
The FDLR was officially set up in 2000 by mainly Hutu Rwandan gunmen operating in eastern Congo, where the remnants of the extremist Hutu militia fled after they were defeated by the Tutsi-led army that ended Rwanda's genocide.
Kigali has previously refused talks with the rebels, accusing them of still wanting to exterminate Tutsis.
But the rebels, and some analysts, say most FDLR fighters played no role in the slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwita, spokesman for Rwanda's army, did not comment on claims the FDLR had started to disarm, saying only: "MONUSCO and Congo have a long overdue obligation to militarily eradicate FDLR genocide criminals from Congo."
Following the genocide, Rwanda sent its army into Congo, where millions of people have died in a series of conflicts that saw neighbors back local rebel forces in clashes over power, mineral riches and ethnic tensions.
Congo and U.N. experts accused Rwanda of backing the Tutsi-led M23 rebels that were defeated late last year. Kigali denies this and has accused Kinshasa of collaborating with the FDLR.
Underscoring regional tensions over the armed groups, Tanzania called on Rwanda to hold talks with its rebels, an appeal that was angrily rejected by Kigali.
(Additional reporting by Pete Jones in Kinshasa and Jenny Clover in Kigali; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones)