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War-weary Congo refugees trudge toward home

International envoys converged on eastern Congo on Friday hoping to help end some of the worst violence the central African nation has seen in years
/ Source: The Associated Press

International envoys converged on eastern Congo on Friday hoping to help end some of the worst violence the central African nation has seen in years, as thousands of anxious, hungry refugees struggled to get home amid a fragile cease-fire.

Associated Press reporters saw a crush of people, sweat streaming down their faces, back on Congo's dirt roads again after fleeing the battlefront between the army and Laurent Nkunda's rebel movement.

"We've had nothing to eat for three days," said Rhema Harerimana, traveling with one baby nursing at her breast, another on her back and a toddler clinging to her skirt.

Harerimana said she had been on the run for five days but was heading home to Kibumba, about 17 miles from the eastern provincial capital of Goma, where rebels halted their advance Wednesday and called for a cease-fire.

The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's unrelenting civil wars. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half million Rwandan Tutsis.

All sides also are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.

Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the dispute.

'This is extraordinary'
According to the United Nations, some 50,000 Congolese appear to have fled refugee camps near Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma, in recent days. Several aid agencies reported that three camps and makeshift settlements were empty, and one aid worker said the camps were burned down, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Karl Steinacker said.

U.N. peacekeepers flew over the area in helicopters Friday and said the camps were still standing but they could not tell if people were still there, he said.

The United Nations' deputy representative and humanitarian coordinator in Congo said more than 1 million people have been displaced — 220,000 of them since August.

"This is extraordinary," Ross Mountain said. "A million (displaced) in a province of six million."

Outside Goma, the bodies of several soldiers lay on the streets as the senior U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, arrived Friday with Alan Doss, the top U.N. envoy in Congo. As they arrived, U.N. peacekeepers put on an unusual show of force, deploying at least four tanks around the city, putting armored cars on patrol and sending U.N. troops with riot shields out on foot.

"The cease-fire is fragile," Doss said. "It will not hold if there isn't progress on other fronts, those political and diplomatic."

He said both sides had assured him they would respect the cease-fire.

Rebels were manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Goma. Peacekeepers had retreated to within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the city, abandoning positions north of Goma to rebels who fired rockets at their armed cars and one missile at a helicopter gunship.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband were expected to visit both Goma and the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

The international envoys aim to get Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to sit down together and sort out the issues at the root of the conflict. EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel — who was holding separate talks with Kabila and Kagame — said in Kinshasa that both leaders had agreed to hold a peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was traveling in India, urged all the factions to meet at a neutral site and begin talks on restoring peace to the conflict-wracked region.

Demand for minerals has fueled Congo's conflicts for years. Nkunda has complained about a $9 billion agreement in which China gets access to Congo's minerals in return for building a highway and railroad that would open up the remote mining interior to southern neighbors.

Nkunda halted his rebels' advance Wednesday and called the cease-fire, saying he wanted to allow humanitarian help through and refugees to go home.

But a team from the International Medical Corps trying to reach a clinic in Kibumba, about 17 miles (28 kilometers) from Goma, was stopped by a rebel guard who said he needed permission to let them pass. Hours later, the team was still waiting. Nearby, rebels refused to allow about 20 drivers of motorbike taxis to return home to Goma.

Continued conflict
Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations. Kabila, elected in 2006 in Congo's first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.

Nkunda began a low-level insurgency in 2004, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.

Congo has charged Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.

Rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.

Only 6,000 peacekeepers of the 17,000-strong U.N. mission in Congo are in the east because of unrest in other provinces. The U.N. force is the body's largest peacekeeping mission in the world, but it urgently called this week for reinforcements.

The European Union decided Friday against sending troops into Congo, saying the 27-member bloc will instead focus on a diplomatic solution to end the conflict.