updated 1/23/2008 1:58:32 PM ET 2008-01-23T18:58:32

Representatives of the government and militias it has been fighting signed a peace accord Wednesday that calls for an immediate cease-fire after years of fighting in Congo's east.

A representative for Laurent Nkunda, the main insurgent leader, was the first to sign the document in a ceremony attended by President Joseph Kabila and witnessed by reporters.

The head of Nkunda's delegation, Kambasu Ngeve, was followed by representatives for other armed groups, including members of militias known as Mai Mai who had argued for changes in a draft proposal.

The deal signed Wednesday calls for essentially the same measures as the draft seen by reporters earlier in the week, said Vital Kamerhe, a government spokesman for the talks. That draft called for an immediate cease-fire between all groups.

It also provided for U.N.-monitored buffer zone between militia fighters and government forces and gave militia fighters amnesty from prosecution for insurgency or acts of war, but not for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Vast Congo has been struggling to establish itself as a functioning democracy since the end of 1998-2002 wars that pulled in armies from half a dozen neighboring countries.

In 2006 the Central African country took a major step toward stability with its first free and fair vote in more than 40 years, but Kabila has struggled since to contain the bloody insurgency in the east while also confronting widespread government corruption and a war-decimated infrastructure.

''A chance to live in peace'
Sporadic violence has plagued eastern Congo for years, as local militias clashed with each other, with army forces and with perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who took refuge by crossing the border into the region's little-policed hills. Rights groups have accused all sides of rape campaigns and forcing underage boys to enlist as fighters.

Most of the current unrest has been linked to Nkunda, a former army general who broke with the government and established a fiefdom in North Kivu province backed by battalions that defected with him. Fighting between Nkunda's forces and the army has forced some 800,000 villagers to flee their homes this year.

Government officials and representatives from numerous rebel groups have been meeting in the main eastern city of Goma since Jan. 6 in talks involving nearly 1,300 people. Kabila and Nkunda both sent representatives to broker the deal; Kabila himself appeared at the talks on Wednesday.

"I would like to tell Laurent Nkunda and all those who had chosen the path of arms and who today chose the road of peace, that Congo's people consider them brothers and that they will welcome them into their houses," government spokesman Kamerhe said.

A spokesman for Nkunda's delegation said it had made compromises — for example agreeing to only partial amnesty.

"We were obliged to sign to give Congolese a chance to live in peace and security in the east of the country," said Seraphin Mirindi.

The compromises did not come easily. The talks were prolonged several times when delegations — including Nkunda's — walked out and then when last-minute amendments threatened to scuttle an agreement reached late Monday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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