African leaders and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a ceasefire in RD Congo as fighting continued to rage between tutsi militias and the Congolese army in the country's eastern region of North Kivu.
KIBATI - Fighting between rebels and the army caused a fresh refugee exodus in east Congo on Friday, and African leaders called for an immediate ceasefire to end a conflict the U.N. said could engulf the Great Lakes region.
The renewed combat near Kibati in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province sent thousands of civilians fleeing in panic from a nearby refugee camp, adding urgency to a regional peace summit held in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
"There should be an immediate ceasefire by all the armed men and militia in North Kivu," said Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula, reading a communique agreed by seven African leaders who met U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Nairobi.
The leaders from the Great Lakes region, including the presidents of Congo and Rwanda, said they would be willing to send peacekeeping troops to east Congo if required.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who have traded accusations about supporting rival rebel groups, held a brief one-on-one meeting during the summit.
Ban, who said he had come to the region with a "very heavy heart" but was encouraged by the summit, urged Kabila and Kagame to continue their dialogue.
African Union Chairman and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the newly nominated U.N. special envoy for east Congo, would try to talk to the warring parties on the ground, including the Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.
Fighting between Nkunda's Tutsi rebels and Congo's army has spread along the hilly border with Rwanda, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and creating a humanitarian crisis.
The African leaders called for a humanitarian corridor to be set up to channel aid to help refugees.
"This crisis could engulf the broader sub-region," Ban told the Nairobi summit, adding that only a lasting political settlement, rather than military moves alone, could solve it.
As the United Nations and African leaders were meeting, Nkunda's battle-hardened fighters and government troops exchanged machine-gun, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire from green hills in sight of North Kivu's Nyiragongo volcano.
As the sound of combat echoed around the slopes, civilians carrying infants, bundles, pots and even domestic animals streamed south away from the camp at Kibati on the road towards North Kivu provincial capital Goma, 7 km (4 miles) to the south.
The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17,000-strong, deployed in the vast, mineral-rich but racially divided Congo, whose eastern conflict is fuelled by ethnic tensions stemming from the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.
"World cannot look away"
But U.N. troops are thinly stretched across a state the size of Western Europe where marauding armed groups have roamed for years, killing, looting and raping and recruiting child soldiers in some of the worst levels of violence seen in the world.
A Uruguayan U.N. commander at Kibati said some of the troops reinforcing the Congolese government lines were Angolans.
Angola, which intervened in Congo's earlier 1998-2003 war, is a staunch ally of Kabila but said on Friday it would not interfere directly so as to avert worsening the crisis.
"I have no information about the Angolan forces participating," U.N. chief Ban said.
Humanitarian agencies are clamouring for more protection for Congo's civilians and a group of them appealed to the U.N., Africa and Europe to strengthen the U.N. force with more troops.
"The world cannot look away again as thousands suffer in eastern Congo," said Juliette Prodhan, head of Oxfam in Congo. "We have had fine words and important meetings ... we need more urgency, action and commitment," she said.
The recent upsurge in fighting between Nkunda's rebels and army troops backed by militia allies has raised fears of a rerun of a wider 1998-2003 war in the former Belgian colony.
A key issue African leaders need to resolve for a lasting solution is the presence in east Congo of Rwandan Hutu rebels, known as the FDLR, who took part in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
Previous agreements to halt the fighting have failed to produce results on the ground.
Nkunda justifies his revolt as a legitimate one to protect ethnic Tutsis in Congo from the Hutu rebels. He told Reuters on Friday the summit would have no influence on him unless the leaders convinced Congo's Kabila to have talks.
"It's only a regional summit. It doesn't have any impact on our demands," Nkunda said by telephone from east Congo.
The region is rich in minerals, such as coltan, which is used in mobile phones, making control of the remote terrain, far from Congo's capital Kinshasa, lucrative.
United Nations relief agencies, which run the Kibati refugee camp, said Friday's fighting had interrupted the distribution of aid and caused panic among the camp population.
Rwanda denies supporting Nkunda and accuses Congo's army of backing the Hutu rebels in the east.
The number of people displaced by fighting in North Kivu since September is now estimated at 250,000, the U.N. said. This was in addition to 800,000 who had fled previous hostilities.
"The humanitarian situation is deteriorating," Elisabeth Byrs of U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said.
Date created : 2008-11-07