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Fresh fighting spurs fears that crisis could spread

Video by Arnaud ZAJTMAN , Marlène RABAUD

Text by REUTERS

Latest update : 2008-11-08

As African leaders and UN delegates met in Nairobi, renewed fighting prompted another exodus of refugees and a warning from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the crisis could spread to the broader sub-region.

 

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 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 accused each other of 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 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.

 

 

 

CIVILIANS STREAM SOUTH

 

As the United Nations and African leaders were meeting, Nkunda's battle-hardened fighters and government troops exchanged machinegun, 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 towards the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, 7 km (4 miles) to the south.

 

The United Nations has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17,000-strong, deployed in the vast country whose eastern conflict is fuelled by ethnic tension stemming from the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

 

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 violence seen in the world.

 

Humanitarian agencies are clamouring for more protection for Congo's civilians and a group of them appealed to the United Nations, Africa and Europe to strengthen the U.N. force.

 

"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.

 

Edmond Mulet, U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, said the Security Council should act urgently on a request from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for 3,000 additional peacekeepers to help prevent full-scale war.

 

Speaking in New York after returning from Congo, Mulet dismissed reports that Angolan troops were present in Congo, saying Congolese government soldiers trained in Angola had probably been mistakenly identified as Angolan.

 

The 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.

 

 

 

RWANDAN HUTU REBELS

 

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 says his revolt is 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 persuaded 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.

 

U.N. relief agencies, which run the Kibati refugee camp, said Friday's fighting had interrupted the distribution of aid and caused panic among camp residents.

 

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 estimated at 250,000, the United Nations said. This was in addition to 800,000 who had fled previous hostilities.

 

"The humanitarian situation is deteriorating," Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said.

Date created : 2008-11-08

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