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|November 7, 2008|
By Emmanuel Braun and Hereward Holland
KIBATI, Congo, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Thousands of frightened civilians fled fighting near a refugee camp in eastern Congo on Friday, as renewed clashes between rebels and government troops added urgency to a regional peace summit being held in Kenya.
Carrying infants, bundles, pots and even domestic animals, refugees streamed south away from the camp at Kibati at the base of the Nyiragongo volcano in Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province.
The sound of machine-gun, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire echoed from the surrounding hills as Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda fought government troops dug in near Kibati, 7 km (4 miles) north of the North Kivu regional capital Goma. 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.
A recent upsurge in fighting in North Kivu between Nkunda's rebels 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. United Nations relief agencies, which run the Kibati camp, said the fighting had interrupted the distribution of aid and caused panic among the camp population.
"All our programmes in Kibati have been suspended as a result of the shooting, the whole camp is emptying," Jaya Murthy, spokesperson for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF in Goma, told Reuters.
A spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC) said the fighting at Kibati 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.
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 Western 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. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Additional reporting by Henrique Almeida in Luanda; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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