KILIMANYOKA, Congo – The road that leads into rebel-controlled Congo begins with a makeshift roadblock made from the corpses of two government soldiers strewn across the dark volcanic earth.
The pair on Wednesday blocked the main two-lane track running north from the regional capital, Goma — one with a bullet in his forehead and a frozen fist grasping the air above.
The scene was meant as a warning to government troops just a few hundred yards down the road whom the rebels had battled the night before. And for the few fearful civilians trickling past the frontline, it was clear message that Congo's savage war is not easing amid fears it could draw in Angola and others in the region.
Click here for photos.
"We don't want any more of it," said 18-year-old John Biamungu, who pushed a wooden bicycle past the corpse-strewn checkpoint as rebels stood in a clutch of trees on both sides staring silently.
Years of sporadic violence in eastern Congo intensified in August, and fighting between the army and fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has displaced at least 250,000 people since then — despite the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world.
On Wednesday, Angola's Deputy Foreign Minister Georges Chicoty said Angola was prepared to send troops to Congo, fueling fears the conflict could engulf the region.
It was not clear whether the soldiers would be intended to serve a peacekeeping role or back Congolese troops, as they did during a ruinous 1998-2002 war that drew in more than half a dozen African nations.
Associated Press reporters have already seen Portuguese-speaking soldiers wearing green berets with pins in the shape of Angola appearing to guard a road alongside Congolese soldiers. But Angola has denied their presence.
The overt entry of Angolans into the conflict could draw in Rwanda, which Congo has already accused of sending troops to support Nkunda.
Rwanda battled highly trained Angolan troops during the 1998-2002 war, which tore Congo into rival fiefdoms. Rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda seized vast swaths of territory rich in coffee, gold and tin in the east, while Angola and Zimbabwe, sent tanks and fighter planes to back Congo's government in exchange for access to lucrative diamond and copper mines to the south and west.
Eastern Congo has been unstable since millions of refugees spilled across the border from Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus slaughtered.
Many of the Hutu extremists who orchestrated the mass killings have remained in Congo, prompting Tutsi-led Rwanda to invade the mineral-rich nation twice. Nkunda, who quit Congo's army in 2004, has taken up the cause. He claims he is fighting to protect Tutsis, who like Hutus are a minority and one of an estimated 200 ethnic groups in Congo.
The bodies blocking the maroon-tinged road at Kilimanyoka Wednesday were dressed in olive green military uniforms. Each wore the blue armbands of the army. Both were barefoot, their boots apparently removed by rebels.
A white four-wheel drive belonging to a humanitarian aid group slowed down and wound off the road around them. Civilians covered their mouths as they passed in silence, aghast at the scene. Rebels standing in trees on both sides of the road stared coldly at approaching journalists and the few civilians who passed by.
Asked how the army troops came to be placed in the road, one rebel wearing an olive green poncho grinned.
"The army attacked," he said, looking out at the bodies and a light rain drizzled from a dark sky. "This is what happens when the army attacks."
He refused to give his name because his commander was not present.
After walking a few hundred yards south through an empty no-mans land that separates the two sides, Biamungu stopped and spoke to a reporter.
"The rebels said to us, 'What are you looking at?' Biamungu recounted. "We didn't say anything. We kept moving. Honestly, we are afraid."
Exhausted Congolese soldiers sat leisurely by the road, apparently unworried rebels were so close. It was a bizarre mix, neither war nor peace.
"When we get orders to attack, we will," said Congolese army Capt. Alex Kazadi, as a couple soldiers cooked stews in the fields behind him, the steam from boiling water evaporating into the chilly air. "This has gone on too long."
The rebels, however, are far more disciplined on the battlefield than Congo's ill-trained army, which was forced into a humiliating retreat in late October as Nkunda's forces advanced toward Goma and suddenly halted.
Both sides blamed each other for starting Tuesday's clash.
Asked if he had lost any troops in the gunbattle, Kazadi shrugged. "It's normal to lose men in a war," he said.
A few miles to the south at Kibati, thousands of people lined up to get survival kits being handed out from five white International Committee of the Red Cross trucks. The kits contained buckets, blankets, soap, hoes and cooking utensils, said Abdallah Togola, an ICRC official in Kibati.
Togola said the area was reaching its capacity to handle refugees.
"All the schools and churches are full," he said, adding that local families have taken in about six people each.
Tuesday's fighting, which lasted nearly an hour, sent some families rushing for what they hoped was the safety of refugee camps. Others ran into the bush.
Biamungu said he'd slept with his mother and two siblings in the open under a banana field, fearing the camp could be targeted. It wasn't.
Many are to afraid to return to villages to the north seized by rebels in the last few weeks. Biamungu said he fled the village of Rugari months earlier. He risked going back Wednesday to bring back a sack of sweet potatoes and illegal charcoal he hoped to sell in Kibati for $10.
U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich urged both sides to show restraint.
"It's not acceptable that in the proximity of 75,000 people (in Kibati), they cannot cease hostilities for a few days," Dietrich said. "We are working hard to separate them. They have to be responsible actors."