The Congolese army and Tutsi rebels have engaged in some of the worst clashes for a week despite rebel leader Laurent Nkunda saying he supports peace in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN said Monday.
No end in sight to hostilities that have caused a humanitarian disaster in DR Congo
There was heavy firing between Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and the Congolese army from early afternoon Sunday until late evening, Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, told German news agency DPA.
"Yesterday we had a lot of clashes in Riwindi -- 125 kilometres north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province -- and its outskirts," Dietrich said.
The CNDP seized control of the Riwindi area during the fighting, which saw one Indian UN peacekeeper at a nearby base sustain minor injuries in crossfire. No further exchanges of fire were reported Monday morning.
The clashes took place as Nkunda told UN peace envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, that he would stick to a recent ceasefire and support a UN-backed peace process if the government also did so.
Nkunda called a ceasefire over two weeks ago as his troops were on the verge of taking Goma.
But there have been repeated clashes despite the ceasefire. Dietrich said all indications are that the CNDP was intent on gaining more ground.
Displaced people can now be found all over eastern DR Congo
"They are now trying to move northwards to take Kanyabayonga -- 175 kilometres north of Goma," he said. "In the last ten days or more they have taken more and more terrain under their control."
A spokesman for the renegade general Nkunda said government forces had been pushed back to Vitshumbi, about 15 kilometers northeast of Riwindi.
Government troops "have no choice but to run away across the lake or through the forest," the spokesman said. "We are going to advance on Vitshumbi and silence the government forces. We are going to impose a ceasefire on them."
Thousands still displaced
Government soldiers looted from civilians and also raped women last week as they retreated from Kanyabayonga area.
Aid agencies say that fighting between Nkunda's CNDP and government forces has displaced at least 250,000 people since late August.
Poor security has impeded access to the displaced, but a World Food Program convoy on Friday succeeded in crossing the front lines to deliver food to tens of thousands in the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja.
Rebel leader wants government talks
Nkunda, who has repeatedly said he would respect the ceasefire while fighting continued, has insisted on direct talks with the DR Congo government.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, center, has been dismissed as a war críminal
The rebel general has warned that unless a line of communication with the government was opened, his forces -- believed to number between 4,000 and 6,000 -- would march on the national capital Kinshasa.
But the DR Congolese government has dismissed Nkunda as a war criminal and refused a meeting with him.
Nkunda was left out of talks in Nairobi on Friday, Nov. 7, attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame.
Fears of enlarged conflict
There are fears that the fighting could reignite the 1998-2003 war which sucked in many other African nations, including Angola, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have died as a result of that five-year conflict in the resource-rich nation, most of them from hunger and disease.
There have been persistent reports of Angolan soldiers on the ground in the DR Congo during the last few weeks of fighting, though Angola has denied these reports. Southern African leaders have said they would send a peacekeeping force in to the conflict-stricken state if necessary.
Some DR Congo leaders have accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is fighting to protect Tutsis from Hutu militias.
The armed Hutu groups were implicated in the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The Hutus fled to DR Congo after Tutsis forces led by Kagame seized power.
However, many observers say that the ethnic dimension is merely a pretext for various militias to seize control of land rich in gold, tin and coltan, which is widely used in electronic devices.