DR Congo

Aid agencies fail to reach many Congo refugees

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By Hez Holland and Yves Boussen

KIBATI, Congo, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Aid agency efforts to help thousands of people displaced by fighting in eastern Congo mostly failed on Saturday, despite an appeal by African leaders for a ceasefire.

Toning down his warlike rhetoric, rebel chief Laurent Nkunda welcomed a call for a ceasefire and humanitarian corridor, and the U.N. force urged rebel and pro-government militias to leave the North Kivu town of Rutshuru, north of Goma, after a spate of killings by both sides.

But aid workers in North Kivu province were cautious as fighting between Tutsi rebels and pro-government forces continued despite a unilateral ceasefire Nkunda declared last week, a few days into an offensive against the provincial capital Goma that sent civilians fleeing for their lives.

"We urgently need to get into these places and deliver assistance," the U.N. World Food Programme's Marcus Prior said.

GUNFIRE

Sporadic bursts of gunfire were heard early on Saturday near Kibati, 12 km (7 miles) north of Goma, where more serious fighting between Nkunda's rebels and Congo's army halted food distribution and vaccinations by U.N. agencies on Friday.

In a sign of chaos reigning in Goma, Congolese Army soldiers shot dead an off-duty Senegalese peacekeeper late on Friday in what appeared to be a botched robbery, U.N. officials said.

Nkunda's revolt against the Democratic Republic of Congo's government, which he says sides with local militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels against his minority Tutsi community, has displaced over 1 million in North Kivu in two years, and an estimated 250,000 since September alone.

The world's biggest U.N. peacekeeping force, the 17,000-strong MONUC, has been unable to stem the latest bout of bloodletting to rock Congo since a 1998-2003 regional war driven in part by competition for its huge mineral resources.

Over 5 million people have died in a decade of conflict.

African leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met in Nairobi on Friday to tackle the conflict, rooted in Rwanda's 1994 genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"They were talking about a ceasefire and humanitarian corridor. We were asking for that already," Nkunda told Reuters on Saturday by phone from his base in the hills north of Goma.

WARNING TO PEACEMAKERS

Nkunda's comments were generally more conciliatory than most of his other public statements during the two-week offensive.

But he warned regional peacemaking forces -- which Friday's summit agreed may be sent into North Kivu -- to stick to humanitarian operations or they would be treated as the enemy.

"If they come to really support the corridor, I have no problem. If they come for political reasons, it is not for peace. We will treat them like (the U.N. force). They will be on the side of the government," Nkunda said.

Civilians displaced by the conflict tried on Saturday to get back to what passes for normality in a refugee camp at Kibati, which thousands fled on Friday during gunbattles between rebels and Congolese troops in nearby Kibati village.

"I heard bullets and bombs from Kibati yesterday. I just dropped my luggage and ran," 12-year-old Jean-Claude Bahati, wearing a frayed shirt and plastic flip-flops, told Reuters.

"I don't know where my parents are. Last night I slept in a banana plantation," he said as he wandered around Kibati camp.

Further north around the towns of Rutshuru and neighbouring Kiwanja, aid workers are unable to reach camps where thousands of people had been sheltering before the latest fighting.

"We had a lot of work going on in Rutshuru and some points in between, but that's been suspended," Kevin Cook, spokesman for aid group World Vision, said.

"We would like to see the corridor opened all the way to Rutshuru, but we don't think it's going to happen," he said.

In some areas Nkunda's Tutsi rebels have fought Rwandan Hutu rebels, reflecting the ethnic faultline of Rwanda's genocide.

Nkunda's rebels drove pro-government Mai-Mai militia fighters out of Kiwanja on Wednesday, and the U.N. force and human rights researchers say both sides killed civilians.

U.N. peacekeepers visited 11 sites of communal graves and human rights groups say the armed factions have been recruiting children to fight in Rutshuru and other parts of North Kivu.

"I suggest that we demilitarise Rutshuru. All armed forces of whatever kind should leave," MONUC head Alan Doss said at a news conference in Goma.

MONUC says it cannot cover every bit of a country 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.

A senior peacekeeping official urged the Security Council on Friday to give urgent consideration to a request from Ban last week for 3,085 more police and military personnel for MONUC.

"We are very concerned that the situation may deteriorate further," Edmond Mulet, U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, said after visiting Congo.

(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa, David Lewis in Nairobi and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing Alistair Thomson; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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