Image: Refugees receive food aid.
Walter Astrada  /  AFP - Getty Images
A Congolese man gets boxes of high nutrition cookies at a clinic distributing food to people living in a camp about 6.21 miles north of Goma on Tuesday.
updated 11/4/2008 3:53:47 PM ET 2008-11-04T20:53:47

Congo rejected a rebel warlord's demand for direct talks to solve the conflict that has left hundreds of thousands hungry and homeless in a mineral-rich eastern province. The rebels warned Tuesday that the government's refusal could lead to more fighting.

Minor skirmishes broke out between Gen. Laurent Nkunda's Rwandan-backed Tutsi rebels and a pro-government militia. And Nkunda's spokesman alleged that neighboring Angola and Zimbabwe were mobilizing to help Congo's government, raising fears of a broader regional war.

Congo President Joseph Kabila's administration is "open for dialogue" with all rebel and militia groups in the region but will not meet Nkunda's group alone, government spokesman Lambert Mende said in Kinshasa, the capital.

"Apart from dialogue, all that remains is war," responded rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa. "If they won't negotiate with us, then they leave us little choice. We will start fighting again and we will continue until we take Kinshasa."

Neil Campbell of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nonprofit NGO, said Nkunda was getting "fairly agitated" sitting outside Goma since announcing a cease-fire last week.

"The longer that he sits here and no one approaches him, the more likely he is to react and start things up again," Campbell warned.

Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito flew into Goma late Tuesday to assess the situation.

After a nearly weeklong cease-fire, fighting erupted Tuesday at Kiwanja, north of the eastern provincial of Goma, between rebels and a pro-government Mai Mai militia, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said.

The Mai Mai are one of dozens of small militia groups operating in Congo's lawless east, which the government and U.N. peacekeepers have struggled to secure for years.

Reports of atrocities
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said he was monitoring reports of war crimes in the Congo and the perpetrators "will not go unpunished." He said his investigators are hearing of murders, rapes, attacks on civilians and looting in the Congolese province of North Kivu.

Video: Food crisis

A two-month surge in Nkunda's rebellion near the Rwanda border has mostly abated, with his troops entrenched around Goma. But Bisimwa alleged Tuesday that Angola and Zimbabwe were mobilizing troops to back government forces against the rebels.

"(The groundwork) is being laid for a generalized war in the region, and we will fight because we are obliged to defend ourselves," Bisimwa told The Associated Press.

Zimbabwe denied the allegation and Angola, a longtime ally of Congo's government, did not comment.

The fighting in eastern Congo is fueled by tensions left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda and Congo's back-to-back wars from 1998-2002, which drew in a half-dozen countries. Angola and Zimbabwe fought for Congo in exchange for access to copper and diamonds, while Rwanda and Uganda backed rival rebel factions in the mineral-rich east.

Bisimwa claimed some Angolan troops were already in Bukavu, south of Goma. Later, the rebels said 550 Angolan commandos were already in Goma and others were in the central city of Kisangani. It was impossible to verify the claims.

U.N.: Rwanda forces invovled
The U.N. on Tuesday accused Rwanda of firing tanks or artillery into Congo last week. Rwanda denied its forces are involved.

An envoy from Zimbabwe, Bright Matonga, dismissed the rebel allegations and noted that a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force was already in Congo.

"Why would we want to go to Congo?" he said. "We've got our problems of our own."

Nkunda declared a unilateral cease-fire Oct. 29. He claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after the Rwandan genocide.

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would meet Kabila and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame for talks next week. Rwanda has enormous influence over Nkunda.

"The conflict along the Rwanda and Congolese border has gone on too long and (with) catastrophic consequences," Ban said.

Civilians flee
The fighting in eastern Congo has forced 250,000 refugees to struggle through the countryside with what belongings they could carry. Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern Congo every day, were adding to their misery.

In Kibati, a camp for the displaced north of Goma, aid workers from Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps gave water and high-energy biscuits Tuesday to thousands of hungry children who lined up in the hot sun.

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross planned to hand out food to 60,000 in the Kibati camp, and the World Food Program will distribute 10-day food rations to over 135,000 people in six camps around Goma.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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