- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2008

TONGO, Congo | The European Union could send troops to Congo if a fragile cease-fire between rebel fighters and the army fails, the British minister for African affairs said Saturday as rebels forced tens of thousands of people out of makeshift refugee camps in the insurgent-held zone.

The French and British foreign ministers arrived in Congo for talks with Congolese and Rwandan officials as pressure mounted for a regional summit to secure an end to the country’s worst violence in years.

Outside the regional capital, Goma, rebels were pushing people to leave camps and return home, witnesses and a United Nations official said. They did not say why this was happening, and the rebels issued no immediate comment.

“They beat us with sticks and told us that we must get out,” said Daria Nyarangaruye, an elderly woman who wore a rosary around her neck.

Mrs. Nyarangaruye said she had been forced to leave a camp in Tongo that a day earlier had housed thousands of people. She spoke near her shelter by a roadside six miles away and said she feared more fighting and did not feel safe.

Farther south in Rutshuru, a rebel commander who identified himself as Maj. Muhire said people were returning home because they were free to. But a U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of U.N. staff, said rebels have closed camps that were housing thousands of people.

An upsurge in fighting between rebels loyal to Laurent Nkunda and the army since August has displaced more than 220,000 people in a region already home to about 800,000 more displaced. Mr. Nkunda’s fighters advanced to the doorstep of Goma Wednesday, forcing U.N. peacekeepers and the bedraggled army to retreat in tanks and commandeered civilian cars.

The rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday night, and diplomats have rushed to secure it.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner arrived Saturday in Goma and said he hoped his visit would help them “understand why despite so many efforts no peace has come. Why hundreds of thousands of people are forced into a horrific situation.”

Britain’s Africa minister, Mark Malloch-Brown, said Britain is on standby to provide forces for any EU mission, which would be aimed at bolstering the efforts of U.N. peacekeepers if violence escalates.

“We have certainly got to have it as an option which is developed and on the table if we need it,” Mr. Malloch-Brown told British Broadcasting Corp. radio regarding the deployment of EU troops. “If everything else fails, we cannot stand back and watch violence erupt.”

Mr. Malloch-Brown said the U.N. force in Goma has a small number of lightly armed troops and should be strengthened by redeploying U.N. troops from elsewhere in Congo. The United Nations has fewer than 6,000 of its 17,000 troops in eastern Congo, the epicenter of conflict in this troubled nation.

“Hopefully, with some reinforcements, the U.N. force will be able to contain the situation,” Mr. Malloch-Brown said.

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