GOMA, Congo – Renewed fighting broke out Saturday between rebels and soldiers in eastern Congo, as a U.N. special envoy flew in for emergency talks and said President Joseph Kabila was ready to meet his main rival.
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke in Congo's capital, Kinshasa, before flying to the eastern city of Goma. Fighting erupted in August in the east, displacing 250,000 people and raising fears the violence could spread through the region.
Obasanjo met Kabila late Friday and said the Congolese leader "did not give anything that I would call conditions" for holding talks with rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. "But we are at the exploratory stage now," Obasanjo said.
Congo's government has always said it was willing to meet Nkunda, but only along with the myriad other militias operating in the region — not alone.
Nkunda says he is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The mass slaughter left more than 500,000 dead, most of them Tutsis.
Obasanjo said Nkunda called him three days ago and asked to see him. "I am also looking forward to that, and from there we move on," Obasanjo said.
Later Saturday in Goma, U.N. officials and local dignitaries greeted Obasanjo. He confirmed he planned to meet Nkunda, but gave no details.
Nkunda's spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the meeting would likely take place Sunday in one of the rebel-held towns of Rutshuru, north of Goma, or Bunagana, on the Ugandan border.
The army and rebels exchanged fire for about 10 minutes Saturday in Kabasha, a village around 70 miles north of Goma, said Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman for the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo.
"It's not clear who started it," Dietrich said. "We have launched patrols in the area."
The rebel spokesman could not confirm the fighting, but said it was tense around Kanyabayonga, 10 miles to the west of Kabasha.
"There is a big movement of the government army from Kanyabayonga toward our positions," Bisimwa said. "They have tanks, helicopters, many things. They want to attack us."
The brief skirmish was the first reported since Tuesday, when the army battled rebels in a rare nighttime firefight near the town of Kibati and at least two government troops were killed.
About 60,000 civilians are huddled in two camps at Kibati, about seven miles north of Goma.
Worried about their safety, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday it would move them next week from Kibati to a new site at Mugunga, around six miles to the west.
The move would be voluntary, though, and some camp residents said they intended to stay.
"It's better to stay here," said Willy Furaha, who fled skirmishes in his native Kibumba in late October. "If (rebels) come, we'll go to Goma."
Maombi Uwamariya, 27, said she would move with her four children because "there is fighting" at the front line three miles away.
Others were ambivalent.
"Five kilometers (three miles) from Mugunga are (the rebels)," said Claude Kalume Mwendapole, 41. "Five kilometers (three miles) from here are the rebels. It's the same thing."
More than 2,000 Congolese civilians have crossed into Uganda since Tuesday — bringing the total in Uganda who have fled the recent violence to 12,000, U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Roberta Russo said.
Among them were 42 armed Congolese police officers who crossed the border this week and surrendered to Ugandan soldiers, said Paddy Ankunda, Uganda's army spokesman. The officers will be handed over to the Congolese government, Ankunda said.
On Friday, Obasanjo visited Angola and held talks with Angolan President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who assured him no Angolan troops were in Congo despite numerous reports to the contrary.
Congo has called on Angola for help, and some fear the crisis could draw in regional countries as it did during a devastating 1998-2002 war, which split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms and drew in half a dozen African armies, including Angola's.