They would discuss "ways of setting up separation zones between the two armies to prevent any possibility of confrontation," the rebel statement added.

The UN peacekeeping force in DR Congo said it was checking whether the announced rebel pull back was actually taking place on the ground in the combat zones.

Lt Col Jean-Paul Dietrich, a UN military spokesman, said: "Separation of forces would be a good step in the right direction."

Army withdrawal

Demoralised Congolese government troops have meanwhile been retreating from posts facing the rebels.

Troops falling back ahead of a rebel advance on Kanyabayonga in North Kivu province clashed with their own allies of the Pareco Mai-Mai militia on Tuesday, whose pro-government commanders said they wanted the soldiers to halt the rebels.

On Monday, Joseph Kabila, the Congolese president, sacked and replaced General Dieudonne Kayembe, his military chief of staff, in a bid to bolster the fighting capacity of soldiers who are fleeing before the well-armed Tutsi rebels.

Sikuli Lafontaine, the Pareco Mai-Mai leader, said: "We are stopping them and trying to force them back to the front. That is their job. We don't understand how they can flee when the rebels are about to come to Kanyabayonga.

Congolese army soldiers have been accused of raping and looting during their retreat [AFP]
"These soldiers are cowards. They just flee and then rape and pillage in the cities," he added.

Local residents said they saw the bodies of both soldiers and Pareco Mai-Mai militiamen killed.

Congolese troops in the combat zone have complained of not being paid and have said they do not trust their senior officers.

"Our soldiers are angry," one officer at Luofu near Kirumba said.

"We haven't received our money for a year ... When the money doesn't come it is like a heavy weapon against us.

"Our wounded are not well looked after, and we are not well fed," he said.

Ceasefire

Kabila's government and UN peacekeepers said Nkunda, whose fighters are waging a four-year-old rebellion in North Kivu, are not respecting a ceasefire Nkunda himself vowed to maintain in weekend talks with Olusegun Obasanjo, a UN envoy.

Nkunda and his commanders accuse the army of "provocation".

As aid workers struggle to help hundreds of thousands of refugees in North Kivu - many of them hungry and sick - Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has asked the Security Council to urgently reinforce the UN peacekeeping force in Congo.

UN diplomats said on Monday the Council hoped to vote this week on a French-drafted resolution that would add 3,000 extra troops and police to the 17,000-strong UN force in Congo, which is already the biggest of its kind in the world.

The UN force, known as Monuc, has been criticised by aid agencies and Congo's government for repeatedly failing to protect civilians from rebel attacks and ill-disciplined government soldiers who have allegedly killed, looted and raped during their operations.

Obasanjo said Nkunda, right, had agreed to take part in peace talks in Nairobi [AFP]
Kabila's government and its western allies have been struggling to put together a national army from the patchwork of central army soldiers and former rebel factions that fought in Congo's 1998-2003 war, which sucked six African states in the conflict.

DR Congo's North Kivu conflict traces its origins back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when Hutu militias killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus before fleeing into eastern Congo.

Nkunda says his rebellion is protecting east Congo's Tutsi minority and accuses Kabila of using a Rwandan Hutu rebel group, the FDLR, which includes perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, to fight him.

Congo accuses neighbouring Rwanda of supporting Nkunda's rebellion, a charge denied by Kigali.

Obasanajo, the UN envoy and former Nigerian president who met Nkunda on Sunday, said the rebel leader had agreed to take part in peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya.

Kabila has not confirmed he is ready to meet Nkunda face to face.