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 from 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 U.N. 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.
Nyarangaruye said she had been forced to leave a camp in Tongo that had housed thousands of people a day earlier. She spoke near her home by a roadside, six miles away and said she feared more fighting and did not feel safe.
Further 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 condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of U.N. staff, said rebels have closed camps 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. 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 in Goma Saturday 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 United Nations 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," Malloch-Brown told BBC radio regarding the deployment of EU troops. "If everything else fails we cannot stand back and watch violence erupt."
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 U.N. has fewer than 6,000 of its 17,000 troops in east Congo, the epicenter of conflict in this troubled nation.
"Hopefully with some reinforcements, the U.N. force will be able to contain the situation," Malloch-Brown said.
Jendayi Frazer, the senior U.S. envoy for Africa, also said the U.N. mission was too understaffed and too dispersed to maintain peace. She said the U.N. mission "does have the capability to support the civilian population, but certainly additional strength has been needed for some time."
EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, who held talks with Congo President Joseph Kabila in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, proposed a U.N.-organized summit of the nations bordering eastern Congo, and said Rwanda and Congo would attend. Rwanda's presidency said no date had been set and gave no details.
Michel said such a summit could create a roadmap toward a "permanent solution" for the violence.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also urged the warring parties in eastern Congo to start negotiations in a neutral venue to restore peace.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his British counterpart David Miliband also met Kabila Saturday, then flew to Goma.
Kouchner immediately set off for Kibati, a village on the outskirts of Goma that houses thousands of refugees. Saturday, the area was drenched by a tropical storm that left people wandering around with their bundles of belongings in search of a dry spot for the night.
The two foreign ministers were due in the Rwandan capital Saturday night.
On Saturday, the French aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said it was "extremely concerned about the tens of thousands of people currently on the move, fleeing the fighting." It said they were in "urgent need of clean water, basic items like blankets and shelter materials, and food."
As of Friday, MSF said its team at Rutshuru hospital had treated 83 people for gunshot wounds as well as 20 other war-wounded.
The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's unrelenting civil wars. 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.
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.