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Aid convoy reaches Congo refugees


A UN convoy has arrived in rebel-held areas in eastern Democratic the Republic of Congo, carrying aid for people affected by recent fighting.

The convoy brought medicine to the town of Rutshuru. Food is expected later.

But aid workers found that refugee camps that had held tens of thousands are now virtually empty. It is believed many people left fearing attacks.

Last week rebels led by Laurent Nkunda routed the Congolese army near Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

A fragile ceasefire is now in place, and Gen Nkunda has said he will guarantee "humanitarian corridors" for the convoy through rebel lines.

However, according to AFP news agency, Gen Nkunda also said on Sunday he would drive the government from power unless it agreed to direct talks.

The agency reported that the government had again rejected the demand.

Foraging

The 12-vehicle convoy, escorted by UN troops, arrived in Rutshuru, carrying medical supplies and water purification tablets, but not desperately needed food.

The BBC's Peter Greste, travelling with the convoy, says UN workers are now in talks with local leaders.

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The BBC's Peter Greste saw the convoy arrive

Our correspondent says the UN will try to find out where tens of thousands of people housed in refugee camps have gone. On its journey, the convoy passed the large Kibumba camp, just north of Goma, and all the buildings were flattened, he says.

The area around Rutshuru is relatively calm but reports of fresh clashes in the region on Sunday night have cast doubts on whether the truce will hold, he adds.

The UN said it hoped food convoys could follow.

"We are sending a team to see if it is possible to bring things to Rutshuru in the coming days," said the World Food Programme's Theo Kapuku.

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While as many as 50,000 displaced people reached Goma, many others have tried to return to their homes on foot through rebel-held territory.

Many displaced Congolese have been reduced to foraging for wild roots and berries in the bush, without safe shelter, water and care.

The recent rebel offensive - exacerbated by a wave of killing, looting and raping by retreating Congolese soldiers - has created what aid agencies have termed a "humanitarian catastrophe".

The UN has 17,000-strong force in DR Congo - its biggest mission in the world.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy, who is visiting the country, said on Monday that peacekeepers would "do the maximum to protect the civilians in Goma".

Regional summit

In a weekend of shuttle diplomacy, European foreign ministers met both Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali and Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa.

They said bilateral peace agreements already in place between regional powers must be honoured.

Displaced Congolese women carry their belongings as they leave a camp outside Goma, 2 November 2008

The envoys also held talks with African Union officials in the Tanzanian capital Dar-es-Salaam, aimed at drawing up a blueprint for regional peace talks.

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

After visiting camps for displaced people around Goma, UK and French foreign ministers David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner said establishing an aid corridor to Goma was a top priority.

They also called for the strengthening of UN force in DR Congo, but appeared to rule out sending EU forces.

Mr Miliband told the BBC that diplomatic moves with the African Union offered "some prospect that there will be a political engagement that makes a difference".

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said the international community must "not allow Congo to become another Rwanda".

In 1994, 800,000 people died in Rwanda's genocide, which is seen as the origin of the current conflict across the border.

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.

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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