NAIROBI /GOMA, CONGO // Brief clashes between Congo's army and rebels broke out just outside the provincial capital of Goma today as a peace summit aimed at halting the crisis opened in Kenya, the United Nations said. The army fired mortars at rebels just north of Kibati and rebels responded with gunfire, said the UN military spokesman Maj Shardool Sharma. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon met African leaders at a summit in Kenya today to try and end the conflict in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo before it engulfs the whole region. Fighting between the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and Congolese forces has spread along the hilly, mineral-producing border region with Rwanda, uprooting hundreds of thousands of people and creating international alarm.
One of the key issues leaders meeting in Kenya need to resolve for a lasting solution to the festering conflict is the presence in eastern Congo of Rwandan Hutu rebels who took part in the 1994 genocide. Over the past four years there have been various ceasefires and agreements to disarm all militant groups in the region, but little progress has been made on the ground and there have been frequent campaigns by Mr Nkunda.
He justifies his revolt as a legitimate one to protect ethnic Tutsis in Congo from the Hutu rebels, known as the FDLR, and says he wants talks with the Congo president Joseph Kabila. The region is also rich in minerals, such as coltan, which is used in mobile phones, making control of the remote terrain, far from Congo's capital Kinshasa, lucrative. Mr Ban was holding bilateral meetings with the African leaders today and said before the summit he would encourage Mr Kabila and the Rwandan president Paul Kagame "to find a path to peace".
"We just want Rwanda to stop meddling in the affairs of DRC, and show us the proof," Kabila's spokesman, Kudura Kasongo, told reporters at the summit, saying that talks between Mr Kabila and Mr Nkunda were "not on the agenda". Rwanda denies supporting Mr Nkunda and accuses Congo of backing the Hutu rebels in the east. While the leaders wrestle with their entrenched political differences, calls for more peacekeepers in the region are growing around the world to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Aid agencies are scrambling to provide food and medical care to 200,000 refugees crammed into camps around and just north of Goma, near the border with Rwanda. But relief workers say that many more out of over one million displaced civilians in North Kivu are out of reach of help, either cut off by fighting, hiding in the bush or isolated in zones controlled by rebel and militia forces. Mr Ban has asked the Security Council to approve a "surge" of 3,000 extra troops for the UN Congo mission, Monuc, which at 17,000 strong is already the largest in the world.
But the one thing that desperate refugees and aid agencies in North Kivu province are clamouring for ? more security and protection from attacks by marauding rebels and soldiers ? is the one which the world seems less inclined to provide quickly. With contributor governments distracted and squeezed by the global financial crisis, UN officials say mustering the reinforcements for Monuc could take weeks, maybe months.
Instead, the European ministers and other international figures have been calling for a redeployment of the existing UN peacekeeping force and a strengthening of its mandate to allow it to take on the armed groups roaming across North Kivu. *Reuters