RUTSHURU, Congo, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Congolese Tutsi rebels on Saturday celebrated their occupation of an eastern town with a rally and told displaced civilians to return home, but local people said they feared for their lives.
Heavily-armed fighters loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda held the rally at Rutshuru in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where an upsurge in long-running conflict has displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
They captured the town three days ago in a major offensive that forced government troops to retreat to Goma, the provincial capital 70 km (45 miles) away to the south. United Nations peacekeepers in Rutshuru were maintaining their positions there.
Foreign relief workers say the recent fighting has turned an already difficult humanitarian situation in North Kivu into a catastrophe, with tens of thousands of vulnerable, frightened civilians roaming in search of safe shelter, food and water.
Rutshuru, a town of red brick houses and tin roofs nestling in North Kivu's verdant hills, was calm on Saturday, but businesses were closed and only a few people, mostly women, could be seen on the streets.
Fighters from Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebel group, some swathed in ammunition belts, carrying AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, presided over a ceremony in the local stadium to celebrate the rebel occupation of the town.
The few local people who attended looked grave and preoccupied.
CNDP foreign affairs adviser Oscar Balinda told Reuters in Rutshuru that the rebels controlled the zone and were telling all displaced people in the area to go back to their homes.
"The place is now safe, roads are now open, villages are peaceful and not a single bullet has been fired since we've been here," he said, taking calls on his cell phone from journalists.
Balinda said his group, which says it is fighting to defend east Congo's Tutsi minority from attack by Rwandan Hutus and their Congolese army allies, was inviting humanitarian agencies and NGOs to come to Rutshuru to help people restart their lives.
"There is a need for everything," Balinda said.
Away from the "celebration", local people said they were frightened and resented the presence of the rebel soldiers, whom they described as coming from neighbouring Rwanda.
"We're not happy with these people, because they want to take power and destroy our democracy. What are they going to do for us?", local farmer Kavusa Magazine told Reuters while a crowd around him nodded and chorused their agreement.
"People here are captive, they are forced to do things," he added, referring to the celebration rally. He called the CNDP rebels "killers".
Locals complained that peacekeepers from the 17,000-strong U.N. mission in Congo (MONUC) had not defended them. The European Union says it will send humanitarian aid to east Congo and is mulling the idea of sending troops to support MONUC.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR had said on Friday it was worried about reports that several camps for displaced people near the rebel-held Rutshuru zone, which normally housed 50,000 civilians, had been forcibly emptied, looted and burned.
Huts and other housing structures had been removed from one previous camp area by the side of the road, but there was no sign the camp had been burned.
Balinda said the CNDP was encouraging displaced people to leave the camps and return home to start farming again.
UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond said MONUC reconnaissance flights which flew over three previously UNHCR-run camps in the Rutshuru area found them "emptied". The U.N. agency was trying to verify what had happened to their occupants.
Asked about the CNDP telling displaced people to go home, Redmond, speaking from Geneva, said: "The humanitarian community would prefer that people go home when they feel it is safe".
CNDP foreign affairs adviser Balinda said the rebels wanted to negotiate with President Joseph Kabila's government. "But if the government doesn't negotiate, we'll have to fight," he said.
"There's no peace, there's no security," complained local farmer Magazine.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting and writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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