- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 8, 2008

GOMA, Congo | Angolan troops have joined Congolese soldiers battling rebels near the city of Goma, U.N. officials reported Friday, raising new fears the conflict will spread in the region as African leaders struggled to find a way to stop it.

New clashes between the army and rebels also erupted just outside Goma near Kibati, where about 45,000 refugees from the rebellion in mineral-rich eastern Congo have taken refuge. Thousands fled toward the relative safety of Goma.

Congo on Oct. 29 asked Angola for political and military support as rebels led by former Gen. Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi, advanced toward Goma, capital of North Kivu province near the border with Rwanda. Mr. Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire last week when his forces reached the outskirts of the city, but the truce has crumbled amid persistent reports of fighting in the past few days.

A U.N. official and a Uruguayan peacekeeping officer said Friday that an unspecified number of Angolan troops arrived four days ago. The two officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

The involvement of the Angolans could escalate and spread the conflict beyond Congo’s borders. Neighboring Rwanda likely will consider the Angolan troops a provocation. Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government is accused of supporting the Congolese rebels.

Congo’s 1998-2002 war drew in more than half a dozen African nations, including Angola and Rwanda, which profited from the vast country’s wealth of diamonds and other minerals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, holding a peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya, with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and six other African leaders, warned the “crisis could engulf the broader sub-region.”

“We must put the cycle of violence behind us,” Mr. Ban said.

The Nairobi meeting was unlikely to achieve much, however, without the presence of rebels, who were not invited.

Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa was dismissive, saying: “We expect nothing” from it.

The government has refused direct talks with the rebels, and Rwanda, which is believed to hold strong influence over Mr. Nkunda, characterizes the crisis as an internal one.

The conflict is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda. Mr. Nkunda claims he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who participated in the genocide and fled to Congo afterward.

Violence, which has wracked eastern Congo for years, intensified since August and has since driven some 250,000 people from their homes. New York-based Human Rights Watch says at least 100 have died in the past two months.

The latest fighting broke out Friday near the town of Kibati, six miles north of Goma. U.N. officials said the army fired mortars at rebels just north of Kibati and rebels responded with gunfire.

Some bursts of distant machine-gun fire were audible in Goma. There was no immediate report of casualties, but the road south toward Goma was again lined with thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict. The U.N. refugee agency said the shooting lasted about 30 minutes, interrupted aid distributions and caused panic within the camp population.

Also Friday, a U.N. official said several journalists who were in the conflict zone, including four foreigners, were missing or held hostage. The official said three or four journalists taken hostage by militiamen were handed over early Friday to Congolese army troops and U.N. peacekeepers were trying to reach them. Three other European reporters have been missing for 72 hours.

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