"This is the first time in the history of our country that the daughters and sons of these two provinces ... come together with the sole and unique objective of peace, security, development," Denis Kalume, the interior minister, said at the opening ceremony.

Kalume is representing Kabila, who was expected to attend the conference on Sunday but pulled out at the last minute.

Nkunda delegation

Nkunda, whose National Congress for the Defence of the People is believed to have around 4,000 well-trained Tutsi fighters, will not attend and has instead sent a mixed military and civilian delegation.

Political representatives from the 'Pareco' Mai Mai militia, created to combat Nkunda's rebellion, will also attend.

Up to 800,000 people have been displaced by
the fighting in the eastern provinces [AFP]
Nkunda launched his military action in 2004, saying he would protect his fellow Tutsis against attacks by the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

Fighting resumed in late August after Nkunda abandoned a Rwandan-brokered peace accord and pulled his fighters out of the army.

The FDLR, which is composed in part of Rwandan ex-soldiers and Interahamwe militia who fled to eastern Congo after carrying out the 1994 genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were not invited to the talks.

Ahead of the talks the government announced the suspension of all military operations against Nkunda.

"In the aim of allowing for the holding of the conference in good conditions, I announced the suspension of all operations, especially in North Kivu," Chikez Diemu, defence minsiter, said.

Government 'capitulating'

Congo's opposition has accused Kabila of capitulating to the country's last major armed group by holding the talks.
   
"The state must defend its people," Artur Z'ahidi Ngoma, a vice-president in a 2004-2006 transitional government, told Reuters news agency.

"If this government is incapable of assuming its constitutional responsibilities, then it should simply resign."

However, the conference has the full backing of Congo's UN peacekeeping mission and foreign diplomatic missions, some of which have helped fund the summit.