Thousands in Congo flee fighting by rebels, militiamen
Elsewhere, wider cease-fire holds ahead of summit
KIWANJA, Democratic Republic of Congo - Sporadic gunfire and explosions echoed yesterday around this town in eastern Congo, as rebels fought pro-government militiamen for a second day, forcing thousands of people to flee.
A wider cease-fire between the rebels and the government was holding further south around the provincial capital, however, as diplomats prepared to assemble a regional peace summit tomorrow in Kenya bringing together UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the presidents of Rwanda and Congo.
In Kiwanja, 45 miles north of the main city Goma, clashes erupted Tuesday between rebels and a militia known as the Mai Mai, but the violence eased yesterday afternoon.
Speaking in an interview, warlord Laurent Nkunda accused Congo's army of firing mortars toward rebel positions from behind militia lines during Wednesday's battles. He also said ethnic Hutu Rwandan militias linked to Rwanda's 1994 genocide were fighting alongside the Mai Mai around Kiwanja.
The army could not be reached for comment.
Nkunda claimed the army had also taken part in fighting Saturday in two other towns in the region: Mweso and Kashuga, breaking the cease-fire Nkunda unilaterally declared Oct. 29 three times.
"This morning they wanted to advance (past Kiwanja) . . . but our forces fought them back," Nkunda said. "They were very well armed."
Associated Press journalists who visited Kiwanja at midday saw several thousand people on the roads, including mothers with babies on their backs, trying to find safety. As insurgents loyal to Nkunda searched houses, artillery fire boomed in the hills nearby, and rebels told the reporters to leave.
In nearby village of Mabenga, a Belgian journalist working for a German newspaper was kidnapped by the Mai Mai late Tuesday along with his assistant and three rebel fighters, according to local official Gilles Simpeze. He said the government was negotiating their release.
On the edge of Kiwanja, hundreds of people took shelter at a roofless, abandoned school beside a UN base manned by Indian peacekeepers. The soldiers, in blue helmets and flak jackets, crouched behind sandbags and a ring of concertina wire.
"(The UN) should open up their gates to protect us," said Ntaganzwi Sinzahera, a 30-year-old refugee.
But soon after, Sinzahera and everyone else at the school left, joining a large crowd of refugees streaming toward the adjacent rebel-controlled town of Rutshuru.
"Tonight we don't know where we're going," said 21-year-old Omar Issa, who joined the crowds leaving Kiwanja. "I didn't bring anything. We don't have any food."
Few had time to gather up possessions. One man carried only his Bible.
In Kiwanja, the streets were empty except for refugees. Ramshackle shops were shuttered, wooden doors were padlocked. A few residents peeked out of their homes and ducked back inside.
Fighting in Congo intensified in August and has since displaced around 250,000 people, forcing exhausted refugees to struggle through the countryside, lugging belongings, children, even goats. Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern Congo every day, have added to their misery.
After forcing the army into a retreat and reaching the outskirts of Goma, Nkunda called a cease-fire Oct. 29. The rebel leader has warned, though, that war could resume if the government does not accept his demand for direct negotiations. The government says it will talk - but only with all rebel and militia groups, not just with Nkunda.
A UN-backed African Union summit is expected tomorrow in Nairobi, attended by Congo President Joseph Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ban, the UN chief.
Ban said he would "sit down together with President Kabila and President Kagame and encourage them to find a path to peace."