KINSHASA, Nov 1 (Reuters) - The European Union is ready to send humanitarian aid to civilians fleeing conflict in eastern Congo, but needs to consider further whether it will send European troops, France's foreign minister said on Saturday.
Bernard Kouchner said France's proposal this week that the EU send up to 1,500 troops to support hard-pressed U.N. peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of Congo had been only a suggestion, which was being consulted with all EU members.
France holds the rotating EU presidency and Kouchner, accompanied by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, arrived in Congo's capital Kinshasa on Saturday on a mission to try to secure peace in the violence-plagued east of the country.
An offensive by Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, and subsequent killings and looting by Congolese army troops, have driven tens of thousands of civilians from their homes in North Kivu province on the border with Rwanda.
Although a ceasefire declared by Nkunda appears to be holding, foreign relief workers have described the humanitarian situation in North Kivu as "catastrophic", and have called on the international community to help with aid and security there.
After meeting Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, Kouchner told reporters EU member states which met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the Congo situation were agreed on the idea of a European humanitarian operation for North Kivu.
"They've said it can certainly be done in humanitarian terms," he said. But he added the option of sending troops "must be studied".
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 in the east.
Britain's Miliband told Reuters, "Nothing has been ruled out in terms of European engagement, but at this stage the military force comes from the U.N., the political process needs to come from the parties on the ground, and our role is to help that."
In London, Foreign Office minister Mark Malloch-Brown told BBC Radio the EU would send troops to Congo only as a last resort if the existing U.N force needed to be reinforced and diplomatic peace efforts failed.
He said the EU would not "stand back and watch violence erupt".
Kouchner and Miliband will later travel from Congo to neighbouring Rwanda for talks with President Paul Kagame.
Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of backing rebel groups involved in the eastern Congo violence.
CIVILIANS STAMPEDE FOR FOOD
At talks in Kinshasa and Kigali on Friday, EU Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel obtained the agreement of Kabila and Kagame to meet at a summmit to discuss the conflict.
The United Nations, the EU and the United States have been urgently lobbying the two leaders to make a lasting peace deal that will end any support for insurgent groups.
North Kivu's provincial capital of Goma, which Kouchner and Miliband were to visit later on Saturday, was calm, three days after Nkunda's fighters advanced almost to the city limits.
Foreign relief workers have restarted humanitarian operations around Goma, trying to help tens of thousands of starving, thirsty refugees who are seeking safety and help.
A Kibati, 20 km (12 miles) north of Goma, hundreds of refugees, including children, stampeded to obtain high-protein biscuits being distributed by U.N. children's agency UNICEF.
"Congo is the worst place in the world to be a child and it could become worse if there are disease outbreaks ... if security improves, humanitarian access improves, and we'll be able to put in responses to prevent these epidemics," UNICEF spokesperson Jaya Murthy told Reuters.
The United Nations said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, who is African Union chairman, and AU Commission chief Jean Ping had proposed in telephone talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that a regional summit should be held over the conflict.
Nkunda, who says he is fighting to defend the Tutsi minority in Congo's east, abandoned a January peace deal and has called for a neutral mediator to negotiate.
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.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Hez Holland in Kibati; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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