DR Congo

New Congo fighting forces refugees to flee

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By Emmanuel Braun

KIBATI, Congo, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Congolese Tutsi rebels and government troops fought near a refugee camp in east Congo on Friday, forcing thousands of civilians to flee in panic.

Congolese and U.N. military officers said the two sides exchanged machine gun, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire near Kibati in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where 250,000 people have fled recent fighting.

Thousands of refugees streamed back along the road towards the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, 7 km (4 miles) to the south.

The clash occurred as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met African leaders at a summit at Nairobi in Kenya on Friday to try to end the conflict in eastern Congo.

The fighting in North Kivu between Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and government troops backed by militia allies has raised fears of a repeat of a wider 1998-2003 war in the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, which runs the Kibati camp, said the fighting had interrupted the distribution of aid and caused panic among the camp population.

A spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC) said the shooting broke out when rebel fighters advanced from their positions and fired into the air, drawing return fire from Congolese army (FARDC) troops.

"The FARDC soldiers were provoked to such a point by the (rebels) that they started to shoot," he said.

Witnesses said heavier firing broke out later, sending people running for cover and fleeing down the road.

No details of casualties were immediately available.

CIVILIANS BEING KILLED

Witnesses saw a column of Congolese army troops heading north towards frontline positions occupied by Nkunda's rebels, who had suspended an offensive on Goma last week.

A Uruguayan U.N. commander on the spot said the troops reinforcing the government lines were Angolans, but this could not be immediately confirmed elsewhere. Nkunda's rebels have accused the Congolese government of using Angolan troops.

Angola has one of the largest armies in sub-Saharan Africa and intervened in Congo's earlier 1998-2003 war. Its government is a staunch ally of Kabila but said on Friday it would not interefere directly so as to avert worsening the crisis.

"The direct and indirect interference by third parties will only worsen the conflict," Angola's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The UNHCR said it was worried about the risk of innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire of fighting.

"We are again appealing to all sides in the conflict to respect the civilian character of the camps, to respect humanitarian principles and to ensure the safety of civilians and those trying to help them," UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva.

Refugees and aid workers have been clamouring for more protection by the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, whose commanders say they are thinly stretched across a country the size of West Europe which has few paved roads.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Nkunda's rebels and government-backed Mai-Mai militias of deliberately killing civilians in fighting this week at Kiwanja, north of Goma.

"U.N. peacekeepers in the eastern Congo are simply unable to protect civilians who are being deliberately attacked," said HRW senior researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg. She called on the international community to reinforce the U.N. force.

The number of people displaced by fighting in North Kivu province since September is now estimated at 250,000, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said. This was in addition to 800,000 who had fled previous hostilities in the province bordering Rwanda.

"The humanitarian situation is deteriorating," OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.

"Humanitarian access is extremely limited due to insecurity and very bad roads."

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Hereward Holland in Kibati and Henrique Almeida in Luanda; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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