updated 3/1/2009 6:53:15 PM ET 2009-03-01T23:53:15

Rwanda intends to establish full diplomatic relations with Congo following a joint military operation that saw the neighbors and former enemies collaborate in hunting down an extremist militia, the U.N. chief said Sunday.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame confirmed the plan during an hour-long meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the president's offices.

"I am heartened by his intention to establish full diplomatic relations," Ban told reporters, as he sat beside Kagame. Ban said he told Kagame during their private talk about "my satisfaction at the steps he has taken to open a new chapter" in the two nations' relations.

Rwanda previously invaded Congo in 1996 and 1998, and left only after a 2002 peace agreement ended a war that drew in more than half a dozen African armies.

Rwandans allowed In January, Congo allowed the Rwandans to enter the Congo to hunt down the remnants of the extremist Rwandan Hutu militia accused of orchestrating the slaughter of more than 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, during Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The Rwandan troops began pulling out of Congo on Wednesday.

Kagame said the joint military operation had developed into "an open kind of framework which allows the two countries to work together." He said the military operation "did the best we could within that limited time" but acknowledged there were still Rwandan Hutu militiamen inside Congo.

Ban said the operation "appears to have made progress" but cautioned Kagame to take steps "to ensure that these operations do not affect negatively the civilian population and humanitarian access to those in need."

Major turning point
That Congo allowed Rwanda to enter its territory marked a major turning point.

Analysts say one of the key reasons Congo acquiesced is because Rwanda promised to arrest Laurent Nkunda, the warlord heading a Tutsi rebel group. He was taken into custody Jan. 22 by the Rwandan military, two days after an estimated 4,000 Rwandan troops entered Congo.

Kagame said Sunday that the Rwandan and Congolese foreign ministers were discussing the Nkunda case and how to deal with it.

Congo's government issued an international warrant for Nkunda in 2005 for war crimes and rights abuses allegedly committed when his fighters seized the lakeside city of Bukavu a year earlier.

The U.N. chief is wrapping up a nine-day African tour that included stops in South Africa, Tanzania and eastern Congo, where Ban and his wife visited a camp for displaced people on Sunday. A day earlier, he visited survivors of sexual violence at Heal Africa, a Congolese treatment center in Goma.

After meeting with some of the hungry and destitute families at the sprawling Kibati camp outside Goma, Ban said the number of people there had dropped to 20,000, down from 80,000.

"This is good news. It shows that people are returning to their homes," he said. But, Ban added, for those who have not yet returned "their first concern is security. Even though they want to return, they fear that when they do, they may be attacked" by the remaining extremist Hutu militia.

Defending the U.N. peacekeeping mission
During his trip, Ban has defended the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, saying it has "saved tens of thousands of lives." On Sunday, he pledged that the U.N. peacekeeping force and the Congolese army together would now "provide the necessary security and safety to those returning to their homes."

Critics say the 17,000-member U.N. mission has foundered, despite being the largest and one of the world's most expensive — and with the strongest mandate ever issued to U.N. troops to use force to protect civilians.

"We will ensure that fighting will not occur" in areas previously controlled by the extremist Hutu militia, Ban vowed. "We will try to mobilize all possible resources and humanitarian assistance for the people."

U.N. officials maintain they simply do not have enough boots on the ground to perform effectively in Congo, a country that is bigger than Western Europe but with only 300 miles (500 kilometers) of paved roads.

Ban said he was in Congo "even with limited capacities, to demonstrate my solidarity with those people and to give them a sense of hope."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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