DR Congo

DRC: Nkunda says keeping Congo ceasefire despite clashes

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By Emmanuel Braun

KIWANJA, Congo, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Congolese Tutsi rebels fought pro-government militia for a second day in east Congo on Wednesday, but rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said he was maintaining a week-old ceasefire around a main eastern city.

The confused clashes at Kiwanja near Rutshuru, 70 km (45 miles) north of Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, had raised fears of a return to wider fighting in the violent eastern region bordering Rwanda.

Hundreds of frightened civilians, mostly women and children, streamed out of Kiwanja on the tarmac road to Rutshuru to escape what they said were attacks on civilians by pro-government Mai-Mai militiamen. Bursts of machinegun fire and the thump of artillery could be heard.

In Kiwanja, several hundred civilians sheltered at a ruined primary school close to a camp of Indian United Nations peacekeepers. Smoke rose from one part of the town.

Last week Nkunda declared a ceasefire, suspending a major offensive by his Tutsi fighters against Goma which had sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives.

A rebel spokesman earlier on Wednesday accused Congolese government forces of breaking the ceasefire at Kiwanja.

But Nkunda, while describing the fighting as a "bad sign", said he was upholding the ceasefire around Goma, the provincial capital, where foreign aid agencies are struggling to help and care for refugees packed into camps.

"It's still being maintained," Nkunda told Reuters by telephone from his hilltop headquarters in North Kivu.

Some aid workers said they were suspending operations in the immediate combat zone around Kiwanja and Rutshuru.

"We left Rutshuru yesterday because of the fighting in the area. When the situation improves, we hope to return and continue our programmes, but at present we can't," said Francis Nakwafio Kasai, a U.N. humanitarian agency (OCHA) official.

U.N. peacekeepers said they had launched an operation around Kiwanja to try to halt the fighting and obtain the release of a Belgian journalist, working for a German newspaper, whom U.N. officials said had been seized by Mai-Mai militiamen.

The enduring conflict in eastern Congo, years after the end of a wider 1998-2003 war, has triggered international efforts to secure a lasting peace on Congo's Great Lakes border with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.

SUMMIT PLANNED

Kenya announced on Wednesday that a summit of Great Lakes region leaders, aiming to bring together the Congolese and Rwandan presidents, Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, would be held in Nairobi on Friday.

Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of supporting feuding rebel and militia groups in east Congo, whose conflict traces its origins back to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In Kigali, Kagame dismissed Congolese accusations that Rwandan troops were fighting with Nkunda in east Congo and said Kabila should deal with his country's problems. "It's their own failure in Congo," he told reporters.

A spokesman for Nkunda's rebels, Bertrand Bisimwa, had said earlier that pro-government Pareco Mai-Mai militia and anti-Tutsi Rwandan Hutu rebels were involved along with Congolese army (FARDC) soldiers in the Kiwanja fighting.

The North Kivu government army commander, General Vainqueur Mayala, denied his men were involved, blamed the Kiwanja fighting on Mai-Mai militia, and said his troops would respect the ceasefire.

"I'm under strict orders from the military hierarchy to ensure all our forces strictly observe the ceasefire," he said.

Near Kibati, north of Goma, Congolese army troops reinforced their frontline positions with trucks carrying heavy machineguns and ammunition, witnesses said.

Rebel chief Nkunda, who belongs to and defends Congo's Tutsi minority but also demands a better government for the whole country, threatened on Tuesday to take his guerrilla war to the capital Kinshasa unless the government agreed to talks with him.

The U.N. and foreign aid groups are scrambling to address a humanitarian emergency in North Kivu described as "catastrophic" by relief workers, in a country where more than 5 million people have died in a decade from conflict, hunger and disease.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, at 17,000 strong the largest of its kind in the world, has strengthened its positions around Goma but says it is thinly stretched across a nation the size of Europe, where several armed groups still operate.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to approve 3,000 more troops and police for Congo. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/)

(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Kinshasa, Yves Boussen in Goma, Helen Nyambura in Nairobi and Jack Kimball in Kigali; writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Tim Pearce)

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