Refugees Try To Reach Home In Eastern Congo

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Thousands of war-weary refugees returned to the the road Friday, taking advantage of a rebel-called cease-fire to try to reach home beyond the front lines of this week's battles in eastern Congo.

Rebels from Laurent Nkunda's renegade movement manned checkpoints outside the city, which were littered with plastic and metal canisters from rocket launchers.

Associated Press reporters followed the flood of misery, past bodies of several soldiers on the outskirts of Goma, the rebel-besieged provincial capital of eastern Congo. Women whose faces streamed with sweat carried bundles of belongings on their backs and toddlers on their necks.

"We've had nothing to eat for three days," Rhema Harerimana, who has been on the run for five days, told the AP. She was heading home Friday to Kibumba, about 17 miles (28 kilometers) from Goma.

"There's no shelter, there's no food," she said. "My only choice is to go home."

Nkunda began a low-level rebellion three years ago claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.

He alleges the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.

Congo has charged Nkunda himself with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture, and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.

Rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.

The cease-fire Nkunda called on Wednesday night appeared to be holding Friday morning. He said he had called it to allow humanitarian help to get through and the refugees to go home.

On Friday, a team from International Medical Corps trying to reach a clinic in Kibumba was stopped by a rebel guard who said he needed permission from higher-up to let them pass. Two hours later, the team was still waiting.

Nearby, rebels refused to allow a group of about 20 drivers of motorbike taxis to return home to Goma.

"Those new soldiers have blocked us from returning," said driver Ruwara Nuyubuzu, referring to the rebels manning a checkpoint. "We want to go home."

In Kibumba, soldiers had looted homes and the bank, said village chief Gatambaza Kariwabo.

Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to reignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in eight African nations. President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in the first vote in 40 years, has struggled ever since to contain the bloody insurgency in the east.

The rebel leader said Thursday he wanted direct talks with the Congo government. Envoys from the U.S. and U.N. have been sent in to help set up negotiations.

The United Nations has only 6,000 of its 17,000 Congo peacekeepers in the east because of unrest in other provinces. It says the force is badly overstretched, but European nations were sharply divided Thursday over whether to send troops to Congo.

A half-mile (kilometer) outside Kibumba, there was an abandoned U.N. peacekeeping camp that days ago was filled with Indian troops. The road into Kibumba was blocked by three red Coca-Cola crates and a band of rebels whose commander said reporters must wait to get permission to take photographs.

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