KIBUMBA, Congo – The French and British foreign ministers were heading to eastern Congo in a diplomatic push for peace Saturday as thousands of people packed the streets behind rebel lines and struggled toward their homes during a fragile cease-fire.
Rebels were manning checkpoints outside Goma, the provincial capital of eastern Congo where Laurent Nkunda's rebel movement halted their advance Wednesday and called for a cease-fire with the Congolese army.
Peacekeepers had retreated to within 3 miles of the city, abandoning positions north of Goma.
The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's unrelenting civil wars.
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Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides also are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the dispute.
"We've had nothing to eat for three days," Rhema Harerimana said Friday, traveling with one baby nursing at her breast, another on her back and a toddler clinging to her skirt.
Harerimana said she had been on the run for five days but was heading home to Kibumba, about 17 miles from Goma.
The senior U.S. envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, arrived in Goma on Friday with Alan Doss, the top U.N. envoy in Congo. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband were expected to visit both Goma and the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.
"The cease-fire is fragile," Doss said Friday. "It will not hold if there isn't progress on other fronts, those political and diplomatic."
The international envoys aim to get Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to sit down together and sort out the issues at the root of the conflict. EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel — who was holding separate talks with Kabila and Kagame — said in Kinshasa that both leaders had agreed to hold a peace summit in Nairobi, Kenya.
The United Nations' deputy representative and humanitarian coordinator in Congo said more than 1 million people have been displaced — 220,000 of them since August.
Demand for minerals has fueled Congo's conflicts for years. Nkunda has complained about a $9 billion agreement in which China gets access to Congo's minerals in return for building a highway and railroad that would open up the remote mining interior to southern neighbors.
Nkunda halted his rebels' advance Wednesday and called the cease-fire, saying he wanted to allow humanitarian help through and refugees to go home.
But a team from the International Medical Corps trying to reach a clinic in Kibumba from Goma, was stopped by a rebel guard who said he needed permission to let them pass. Hours later, the team was still waiting. Nearby, rebels refused to allow about 20 drivers of motorbike taxis to return home to Goma.
Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations. Kabila, elected in 2006 in Congo's first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.
Nkunda began a low-level insurgency in 2004, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.
Congo has charged Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.
Rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.