KIWANJA, Congo – Sporadic gunfire and explosions echoed Wednesday around this town in eastern Congo, as rebels fought pro-government militiamen for a second day, forcing thousands of people to flee.
A wider cease-fire between the rebels and the government was holding further south around the provincial capital, however, as diplomats prepared to assemble a regional peace summit Friday in Kenya bringing together U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the presidents of Rwanda and Congo.
In Kiwanja, 45 miles north of the main city Goma, clashes erupted Tuesday between rebels and a militia known as the Mai Mai, but the violence eased Wednesday afternoon.
Speaking in an interview, warlord Laurent Nkunda accused Congo's army of firing mortars toward rebel positions from behind militia lines during Wednesday's battles. He also said ethnic Hutu Rwandan militias linked to Rwanda's 1994 genocide were fighting alongside the Mai Mai around Kiwanja.
The army could not be reached for comment.
Nkunda claimed the army had also taken part in fighting Saturday in two other towns in the region: Mweso and Kashuga, breaking the cease-fire Nkunda unilaterally declared Oct. 29 three times.
"This morning they wanted to advance (past Kiwanja) ... but our forces fought them back," Nkunda said. "They were very well armed."
Associated Press journalists who visited Kiwanja at midday saw several thousand people on the roads, including mothers with babies on their backs, trying to find safety. As insurgents loyal to Nkunda searched houses, artillery fire boomed in the hills nearby, and rebels told the reporters to leave.
In nearby village of Mabenga, a Belgian journalist working for a German newspaper was kidnapped by the Mai Mai late Tuesday along with his assistant and three rebel fighters, according to local official Gilles Simpeze. He said the government was negotiating their release.
On the edge of Kiwanja, hundreds of people took shelter at a roofless, abandoned school beside a U.N. base manned by Indian peacekeepers. The soldiers, in blue helmets and flak jackets, crouched behind sandbags and a ring of concertina wire.
"(The U.N.) should open up their gates to protect us," said Ntaganzwi Sinzahera, a 30-year-old refugee.
But soon after, Sinzahera and everyone else at the school left, joining a large crowd of refugees streaming toward the adjacent rebel-controlled town of Rutshuru.
"Tonight we don't know where we're going," said 21-year-old Omar Issa, who joined the crowds leaving Kiwanja. "I didn't bring anything. We don't have any food."
Few had time to gather up possessions. One man carried only his bible.
In Kiwanja, the streets were empty except for refugees. Ramshackle shops were shuttered, wooden doors were padlocked. A few residents peeked out of their homes and ducked back inside.
Fighting in Congo intensified in August and has since displaced around 250,000 people, forcing exhausted refugees to struggle through the countryside, lugging belongings, children, even goats. Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern Congo every day, have added to their misery.
After forcing the army into a humiliating retreat and reaching the outskirts of Goma, Nkunda called a cease-fire Oct. 29. The rebel leader has warned, though, that war could resume if the government does not accept his demand for direct negotiations. The government says it will talk -- but only with all rebel and militia groups, not just with Nkunda.
A U.N.-backed African Union summit is expected Friday in Nairobi, Kenya, attended by Congo President Joseph Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ban, the U.N. chief. Kagame is believed to wield strong influence over Nkunda's Tutsi-led rebels.
Ban said he would "sit down together with President Kabila and President Kagame and encourage them to find a path to peace."
Asked whether he would encourage Kabila to open a direct dialogue with Nkunda, Ban said: "I will certainly encourage him to engage in dialogue with whoever, including Nkunda. I will discuss this matter with president Kabila."
The conflict in eastern Congo is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002, which drew neighboring countries in a mad rush to plunder Congo's mineral wealth.
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.
Nkunda, who defected from Congo's army in 2004, now says he is fighting to liberate all of Congo from a corrupt government.
Rebels also say regional powers are again getting involved in the fighting. They accuse Congo allies Angola and Zimbabwe of mobilizing to back government forces, while the government says Rwanda is helping the insurgents.
On Wednesday, Rwanda's government called Congo's crisis an "internal" problem.
"The prevailing assumption that the crisis is a matter between Rwanda and the (Congo) is wrong," it said.
The U.N. World Food Program said Wednesday's fighting, which appears isolated around Kiwanja, stopped it from visiting refugee camps near Rutshuru that had been deserted. Residents have said the rebels forced them to leave, but it was unclear why.
"This is a dangerous and unstable environment and it's going to be challenging to deliver food to where it is needed most," regional WFP director Mustapha Darboe said. "We need proper security in place to ensure everyone involved is safe and that we reach the most vulnerable."
The Mai Mai are one of dozens of small militias operating across the forests and valleys of eastern Congo, which the central government has unsuccessfully struggled to control for years.
The U.N. children's agency criticized the Mai Mai for recruiting 37 children to bolster their forces last week.
"Child recruitment by all armed groups has increased significantly over the past two months," the agency said. "UNICEF reminds all armed groups of their obligation not to recruit and use children, and to release all boys and girls under the age of 18."
WFP began distributing 10-day rations Wednesday to more than 135,000 recently displaced people in six camps around Goma.