GOMA, Congo - Congolese Tutsi rebels overran the eastern town of Rutshuru on Tuesday, a rebel spokesman said, in an offensive that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
"We have taken the town of Rutshuru and the (adjoining) town of Kiwanja," rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told Reuters.
Earlier the head of the government army's operations in the area, Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, said he would have to abandon the town in the face of a rebel advance that began on Sunday.
The military spokesman for U.N. peacekeeping mission MONUC, Colonel Samba Tall, said MONUC was attempting to verify the rebels' statement, but U.N. forces were still in Rutshuru.
Speaking from Kinshasa, the head of MONUC Alan Doss said he was unaware the town had fallen into rebel hands.
"As far as I know they haven't taken the town of Rutshuru," he told reporters at the U.N. in New York by video link-up.
Bisimwa said rebels loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda had also encircled the provincial capital Goma 100 km (60 miles) to the south. That could not be independently verified.
U.N. peacekeepers had to scrap a bid to evacuate around 50 foreign aid workers from Rutshuru, in the bloodstained province of North Kivu, earlier on Tuesday.
"The situation is very tense. They were blocked by both the population and soldiers. There are also attacks on humanitarian installations and looting," said Evo Brandau, spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian office OCHA.
"The army is no longer guaranteeing security."
Rutshuru normally shelters tens of thousands of internal refugees displaced by nearly two years of on-off fighting in the tin-mining region, but Kahimbi said the camps had emptied.
REFUGEES FLEE AGAIN
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was preparing for the arrival of 30,000 people at its Kibati camp 10 km (6 miles) north of Goma, including 20,000 from the village of Kibumba, 20 km (12 miles) from Goma, which insurgents attacked on Monday.
MONUC helicopters attacked rebel positions north of Goma on Monday, drawing anti-aircraft fire from Nkunda loyalists.
"MONUC will use all available means to protect urban centres including Rutshuru, Sake (to the west of Goma), and Goma," said Michel Bonnardeaux, spokesman for the peace force, whose 17,000 personnel are mostly deployed in Congo's east.
Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) accuses Congo's army of collaborating with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), which includes Hutu militias and former Rwandan soldiers responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Around 250,000 civilians have fled their homes in North Kivu since a January peace deal collapsed in August. Nearly two years of sporadic fighting had already displaced around 850,000 people before the latest fighting began, according to U.N. figures.
Congo's 1998-2003 war and the resulting humanitarian crisis have killed an estimated 5.4 million people.