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About 60,000 refugees are to be moved from the frontline of fighting between Democratic Republic of Congo rebels and government forces, the United Nations said Friday amid a "volatile" standoff between the two sides.
Renewed fighting in eastern DR Congo between followers of renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and the army has displaced more than 250,000 people and left more than 100 civilian dead, according to UN and private aid agencies.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that 60,000 people in camps at Kibati, just north of the flashpoint Nord-Kivu provincial capital of Goma, would have to be moved.
"Given the continuing security threat, provincial authorities, UNHCR and its partners have decided to transfer the more than 60,000 people in the two Kibati camps as soon as possible, in few days," said UNHCR spokesman in Geneva Ron Redmond.
"Those unable to walk, including children, the elderly and the infirm will be transported by truck to the new site," Redmond said.
Rebels and government forces are about 600 metres (yards) apart at Kibati and a UN peacekeeping force spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, said the force was negotiating "to reduce the tension and keep the belligerents separated as much as possible."
Nkunda's troops have surrounded Goma, the main city in eastern DR Congo with about 500,000 people, for the past two weeks.
The rebel leader's forces on Thursday swept to the outskirts of another strategic town, Kanyabayonga, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Goma.
UN Mission in the DR Congo (MONUC) and government forces had reinforced positions at the town, Dietrich said, adding that Nkunda's fighters were still "a few kilometres" from Kanyabayonga on Friday.
The rebels said Thursday they had advanced on the town without a fight, as government troops had fled.
Government soldiers went on a looting rampage in Kanyaboyanga and surrounding towns this week, apparently unhappy after being ordered to fall back from positions nearer the front line.
A MONUC report sent to AFP said that "the situation is generally calm in Nord-Kivu, even though it remains tense and volatile."
Peacekeepers were continuing patrols of Goma, and the towns of Rutshuru, Sake and Masisi as well as Kanyaboyanga "to ensure the safety of the inhabitants," it said.
The UN special envoy for the crisis, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, arrived in Kinshasa on Friday where he was to meet DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila.
Obasanjo, who arrived from Angola, has arrived in Goma on Saturday.
DR Congo Foreign Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba held talks with ministers and officials in Rwanda on Friday on regional efforts to end the crisis. DR Congo accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, but the Kigali government strongly denies this.
Mwamba said after the talks that "Rwanda has an important role to play in the search for a solution to the crisis."
There are widespread fears of a humanitarian disaster in the Goma region.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said it had begun distributing food supplies for about 12,000 people in rebel-held areas north of Goma on Friday, the first operation of its kind since the end of October.
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said "There are still thousands of displaced people who are trapped in the areas where they have taken refuge and are still out of reach of humanitarian aid."
"The aid convoys are having difficulty getting there, while the clashes continue," said the Geneva spokeswoman.
Around 2,000 people have fled into Uganda since Tuesday, bringing to 12,000 the number of people who have taken refuge in the neighbouring country since fighting erupted in late August, according to the UNHCR.