KIWANJA, Congo, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Aid workers began feeding tens of thousands of civilians in rebel-held areas of eastern Congo on Friday for the first time in weeks after a U.N. food convoy crossed the front lines.
Under a hot sun, the first of at least 50,000 hungry civilians lined up quietly in a church compound and a football stadium to receive maize and lentils in Rutshuru territory, the scene of weeks of battles between rebel and government forces.
"I can't remember how many days my family hasn't eaten. I think about four or five days. These are very small quantities. How can families survive?" teacher Djuma Kabere said as young men pushed bicycles loaded with sacks of white maize meal.
Fighting between the army and Tutsi rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda has forced some 250,000 people from their homes in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province since late August, resulting in what the U.N. has called a humanitarian catastrophe and fears of a broader war.
In October, Nkunda's rebels seized swathes of Rutshuru territory and marched to the gates of provincial capital Goma before declaring a ceasefire. Sporadic clashes have continued.
"This is the first time we have been able to move food trucks across the frontline into the rebel-held areas," said Marcus Prior, spokesman for the U.N. World Food Programe (WFP).
Protected by U.N. peacekeepers, the 12 trucks carrying 100 tonnes of maize, lentils, oil and salt wound its way north on Friday, crossing the combat lines in the shadow of the Nyiragongo volcano, about 10 km (6 miles) north of Goma.
It passed several deserted villages before arriving in Rutshuru and Kiwanja, towns 70 km (40 miles) north of Goma. They are controlled by Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels, some of whom were patrolling on Friday in a jeep seized from the army.
Human rights groups say the rebels and a rival pro-government militia killed dozens of civilians in Kiwanja last week.
Nkunda wants direct talks with Congo's President Joseph Kabila and has threatened to march on the capital, Kinshasa, if he does not agree.
There are fears the fighting could escalate into a repeat of a wider 1998-2003 war that sucked in six African states.
Kabila accuses neighbouring Rwanda of supporting Nkunda while southern African states led by Angola have said they are considering sending troops to back the Congolese army, or to bolster a stretched 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo.
U.N. ENVOY DUE
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is the U.N.'s newly appointed envoy for the Congo conflict, is due to arrive in Kinshasa on Friday for talks with Kabila. He is expected to then head east to meet the rebels.
"It's more important to bring peace instead of food," said local teacher Kabere, although he welcomed the U.N. handout.
As the food was distributed, children ducked under ropes to scoop up handfuls of maize that fell on the ground.
Prior said 50,000 people were registered but the number would rise. The U.N. says malnutrition levels in Rutshuru, usually a breadbasket, have almost doubled emergency levels.
About 1 million civilians in North Kivu have fled their homes from violence since U.N.-backed elections were held across the vast, former Belgian colony in 2006.
The polls were meant to usher in a new era of peace after the 1998-2003 war and its aftermath which has killed some five million Congolese through violence, hunger and disease.
The North Kivu conflict traces its origins back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide of Hutus by Tutsis which helped trigger the 1998-2003 Congo war. Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is defending Congolese Tutsis from attacks by FDLR Rwandan Hutu rebels he says fight with the Congolese army.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)
(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Angus MacSwan)
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