KIBATI, Congo, Oct 31 (Reuters) - France and Britain launched a European Union initiative on Friday to secure peace in east Congo and the EU may fly in food for tens of thousands of civilians fleeing attacks by rebels and soldiers.
"The situation is catastrophic. There is no other word," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Pierre-Emmanuel Ducruet said in Congo's capital Kinshasa.
He said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them starving, exhausted and thirsty, were on the move around the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, at the heart of one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.
EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana said European planes could be used to deliver aid to Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province, where an offensive by Tutsi rebels has caused chaos and raised fears of a return to all-out war.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Minister David Miliband left on Friday on a mission to Congo and Rwanda, which accuse each other of backing rebel groups involved in the Congo violence.
On their trip, the two European ministers were due to meet the Congolese and Rwandan presidents, Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, and also visit Goma.
Two days ago, rebel General Laurent Nkunda declared a ceasefire after his forces fought to the the gates of Goma, driving back Congo's army and pressuring U.N. peacekeepers.
On Friday, taking advantage of the lull in the fighting, civilian refugees streamed out of the city to seek safer zones, food and aid. Humanitarian agencies restarted operations handing out water and food at Kibati, 20 km (12 miles) to the north.
"Since Monday, we've had neither water nor anything to eat. There are groups of people sleeping out in the open ... We've been abandoned and our children have diarrhoea," said Deo Gracias Makombe, a local chief from Burumba village who was displaced by the fighting along with his people.
An estimated one million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu by two years of violence that has persisted despite the end of a 1998-2003 war in the vast, former Belgian colony, which is rich in copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds.
EU diplomats said any European intervention in Congo was more likely to be humanitarian than purely military.
Speaking on France 24 television, Solana said EU forces would "very probably" secure Goma airport to fly in aid.
"If the airport is open, several European countries are ready to do that. And they have already made commitments from a humanitarian point of view," he said.
The world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force, 17,000-strong, is deployed in Congo, but has been badly stretched by rebel and militia violence on several fronts and was not able to halt Nkunda's rapid advance on Goma.
Nkunda, who says he is fighting to defend the Tutsi minority in Congo's violence-plagued east, had abandoned a January peace deal and has called for a neutral mediator to negotiate.
In Addis Ababa, African Union Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters it was Nkunda's forces which had launched the offensive triggering the violence.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated his "full support" for Congolese President Kabila.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday the ceasefire must be kept. European and U.S. diplomatic envoys lobbied Congo and Rwanda to seek a definitive end to the long-running conflict on their borders.
"The ceasefire is fragile ... and will not hold if there isn't progress on other fronts, in particular political and diplomatic," Alan Doss, head of the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC), told reporters in Goma.
Britain's U.N. envoy, Ambassador John Sawers, said Congolese President Joseph Kabila should talk directly with Nkunda.
After overnight violence in Goma in Wednesday, in which aid workers said retreating government troops ran amok, killing and looting, many refugees used the ceasefire to leave the city.
"Life in Goma is very hard, so we prefer to go home. There is no food in town, we have had no support," said Bianze Rubuto, who was leaving Goma with his two wives and four children.
Nkunda said he had ordered his fighters to open up "humanitarian corridors" through the rebel lines.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was checking 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.
Human rights groups appealed for reinforcement of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo. The United States said it supported this but would not provide more troops itself.
Although a five-year war in Congo sucking in its neighbours ended in 2003, conflict has persisted in the east where armed groups, some born out of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, have continued to prey on civilians, killing, pillaging and raping.
Tutsi rebel chief Nkunda has accused Kabila's army of backing Rwandan Hutu rebels in east Congo who took part in the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Kabila's government denies this and has in turn accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda, a charge denied by Kigali.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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