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EU envoys call for Congo action

Chlildren scramble for food in Goma
Thousands of people forced to leave their homes are now in Goma

The UK and French foreign ministers have said urgent action is needed to ease the current crisis in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner warned that displaced people needed rapid humanitarian aid and urged the full implementation of peace deals.

Meanwhile, the UN has said it will send a convoy of food and medical supplies into rebel-held areas on Monday.

It will be the first aid in a week to reach the thousands of refugees there.

A spokeswoman for the charity, Save the Children, said some had been reduced to foraging for wild roots and berries.

Forces loyal to renegade Gen Laurent Nkunda have routed the Congolese military in the areas around Goma and now control vast swathes of the North Kivu region.

Mr Miliband and Mr Kouchner met Rwandan President Paul Kagame in his country's capital Kigali after visiting camps for displaced people around Goma and holding talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in his capital, Kinshasa.

Bernard Kouchner (left) and David Miliband
The crisis, even if averted in the short term, will return without a new, vigorous and united political effort
Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband
French and British foreign ministers

The Congolese government accuses Rwanda of backing the rebels, but both countries' presidents have agreed to attend a regional summit on the situation in the coming weeks.

In a joint statement, the two European foreign ministers said visiting the area had brought home how necessary it was to end the conflict and improve living conditions for those caught in the middle.

"The immediate needs are obvious. We saw them yesterday," they said.

"The humanitarian needs for food, shelter, water and healthcare must be met through universal provision and secure routes for delivery."

The pair also called for the strengthening of the 17,000-strong UN force in DR Congo, and said bilateral peace agreements already in place between regional powers must be honoured.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the international community must "not allow Congo to become another Rwanda", where 800,000 people died in a 1994 genocide that is seen as the origin of the current conflict over the border.

Aid corridor 'vital'

Since fierce fighting began across the eastern DR Congo almost two months ago, some 250,000 people have been forced from their homes, and aid agencies have been forced to suspend operations.

As many as 50,000 displaced have reached Goma while many others have vanished. It is unclear how they are managing to survive.

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Refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo await food

The British and French foreign ministers said establishing an aid corridor to Goma was a top priority.

Visiting the Kibati camp for displaced people north of Goma on Saturday, the ministers and their bodyguards had to push through dense crowds of desperate people.

Correspondents say many were struggling to cook meagre emergency rations while others tried to put up flimsy plastic shelters in the rain.

We want to return to our village, but only if there is security
Rgwasa Nyakaruhije

Others were trying to return to their homes, journeying on foot through territory now controlled by Gen Nkunda, whose rebels are camped out near the city.

"We received no food, so we are returning," Paul Bashoboye Bareke told the AFP news agency, surrounded by his wife and their eight children.

Others saw no point in going home.

"We want to return to our village, but only if there is security. I have not eaten for six days," one elderly woman, Rgwasa Nyakaruhije, told Reuters.

Concerns were heightened earlier in the week when the UN refugee agency said camps sheltering 50,000 refugees in Rutshuru, 90km (56 miles) north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and razed.

The head of mission for the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Goma said the first aid delivery in a week would be dispatched to Rutshuru on Monday after the rebels and the army agreed to open a humanitarian corridor.

The convoy, which will be escorted by UN troops, will group staff and resources from UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs.

"Our priority is to restart the activities at many health centres in the area of Rutshuru and Kiwanja. We're taking health supplies, water, and sanitation," Gloria Fernandez told reporters.

Overstretched peacekeepers

A senior US official has backed the idea of sending EU troops to help the overstretched UN mission, Monuc.

UN peacekeeper in Goma, 31 Oct 2008

But Mr Miliband said the 850 UN soldiers in Goma should rather be reinforced by some of the 16,000 peacekeepers deployed in other parts of the country.

The head of Monuc, Alan Doss, said the UN force was "stretched" on four fronts.

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.

There have been accusations of collusion between DR Congo's army and Hutu guerrillas, while 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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