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UK calls for urgent aid for Congo

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UNICEF aid worker on the refugee conditions in Goma

The UK has warned the need for aid is "absolutely pressing" for the tens of thousands displaced by fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said establishing an aid corridor to the city of Goma was a top priority, after visiting with his French counterpart.

Mr Miliband said the 850 UN soldiers in Goma needed to be reinforced with those deployed in other parts of the country.

He and Bernard Kouchner later flew to Rwanda to meet President Paul Kagame.

The two ministers earlier held talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in the capital, Kinshasa, as part of efforts to end the crisis.

Afterwards, they urged the full implementation of peace agreements between Congo and Rwanda, and the disarming of militias.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, has meanwhile said that her country is in favour of an EU force being deployed to help the overstretched UN mission, Monuc.

"An outside force... could come to provide humanitarian assistance to protect access to the civilian population so the humanitarian workers could serve them," she said after meeting Rwanda's president.

Flimsy shelters

After holding talks with the Congolese government on Sunday morning, the British and French foreign ministers flew together to Goma, the provincial capital of the volatile east, to see for themselves the scale of the humanitarian crisis.

David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1 November 2008)

At the Kibati camp for displaced people, 20km (12 miles) north of the city, Mr Miliband said there was a pressing need for emergency relief to be able to reach the thousands of people who had fled the fighting, and for peacekeeping troops to ensure the safety of aid organisations.

"Humanitarian aid needs security and that is the absolute priority for these people, who need safe and secure routes for the humanitarian aid that has been promised," he told reporters.

Mr Miliband said the UK government did not support sending British troops to reinforce Monuc. The current 17,000-strong force needed to be more effectively deployed in eastern DR Congo, he argued.

"What these people need is quick help," he said. "The first priority is to get them properly deployed, with the right sort of flexibility and the command structures that are delivering for the people here."

Mr Miliband also acknowledged the EU needed to do more to support the humanitarian crisis, but he said there could be no lasting solution without a political agreement that included both the Congolese and Rwandan governments.

The head of Monuc, Alan Doss, said that in the coming days he hoped to be able to find ways to reinforce the UN troops in Goma, but stressed: "We do need help. We are stretched. We are engaged on four fronts."

UN peacekeeper in Goma, 31 Oct 2008

Mr Doss added that he hoped a humanitarian convoy would travel north from Goma on Sunday morning to give help to people in the area.

The BBC's Peter Greste at the Kibati camp says Mr Miliband could have hardly missed the urgency of the problem now facing eastern DR Congo.

He and his bodyguards had to push through a dense crowd of curious but desperate people displaced by the fighting in the past weeks, our correspondent says.

Many were struggling to cook meagre emergency rations on open fires built on the barren ground, others tried to put up flimsy plastic shelters in the rain, he adds.

Some refugees are trying to return to their homes, journeying on foot through territory now controlled by the forces of renegade Gen Laurent Nkunda.

The general has halted his troops close to Goma.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said camps sheltering 50,000 refugees in Rutshuru, 90km (56 miles) north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and then razed.

Rwandan genocide

The UN has more than 17,000 peacekeeping troops in DR Congo - the largest UN force in the world - but correspondents say it is struggling to cope with the scale of the crisis.

On Friday, the Rwandan and Congolese presidents agreed to attend a regional summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in the coming weeks to try to end the fighting.

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS
This morning I was called to help a girl who was raped last night - she is about 13 and we need to administer medicine to protect her against HIV

The origin of the ongoing conflict in eastern DR Congo is the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Gen Nkunda says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in the genocide.

The Congolese government has often promised to stop Hutu forces from using its territory, but has not done so. There have also been accusations of collusion between DR Congo's army and Hutu guerrillas.

The Congolese government, for its part, has accused Rwanda of backing Gen Nkunda. Rwanda denies this, but it has twice invaded its much larger neighbour in recent years.

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