Lusaka - Critical talks aimed at getting the faltering peace process in the Democratic Republic of Congo back on track failed early on Tuesday as DRC President Laurent Kabila refused to accept former Botswana president Ketumile Masire as the facilitator for the talks.

Kabila's chief ally, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, expressed frustration with him: "Kabila has refused to listen or discuss the matter."

Mugabe said it was time that Kabila started listening if peace was to come to the war-torn Congo.

"It is important that he sees the views of other leaders in the conflict if the problem is to be solved," Mugabe said today after the talks closed and before dashing back to Harare.

This is the first time that Mugabe has expressed strong criticism of Kabila, who depends very largely upon the 12 000 Zimbabwean troops for his continued ability to fend off the rebels trying to oust him.

Earlier Bizima Karaha, rebel leader of the Kisangani Rally for Congolese Democracy, had said: "Kabila is nothing without Mugabe."

Kabila also refused to budge on his previous insistence that UN peacekeepers could not be deployed in government-held territory in the war zone, where his troops are fighting rebel movements backed by Rwanda and Uganda.

In a communique issued at the end of the summit, other leaders of SADC, besides Mugabe, appealed to Kabila to reconsider his decision and issued a veiled threat of sanctions if he did not do so.

South African and other diplomats said they believed that Kabila's objection to Masire, whom he has blocked from doing his job, was just a ploy to avoid engaging in constitutional negotiations with all Congolese parties - including the armed rebels.

On Tuesday Zambian President Frederick Chiluba, the convener of the DRC negotiations appointed by SADC, said a start had been made but it looked as though peace would take much longer to achieve than the region had hoped or expected.

Earlier, Organisation of Africa Unity secretary-general Salim Ahmed Salim had raised hopes by saying that the talks had kicked off on a sound note.

"There have been very serious and constructive discussions in the meeting," Salim said. "Everyone is determined to iron out the obstacles and move forward."

But Karaha, a major rebel player in the conflict, said: "It's not going well. If it was going well, we would have been out of here by now." - The Star Foreign Service and Reuters