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Aid Convoy Reaches Rebel-Held Congo Town


A humanitarian-aid convoy escorted by U.N. peacekeepers has reached the rebel-held town of Rutshuru in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The town had been cut off from aid since rebels led by General Laurent Nkunda drove out government forces early last week. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

Roughly a dozen vehicles carrying aid workers were escorted by 50 U.N. peacekeepers to the town of Rutshuru, 70 kilometers north of the provincial capital of Goma, near the border with Uganda.

Spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by the French acronym MONUC, says the convoy did not encounter any problems.

"It is a joint assessment mission of OCHA, MONUC and other humanitarian agencies," said Mounoubai. "The convoy is being escorted by MONUC blue helmets. It left Goma this morning to go Rutshuru. The convoy is carrying with it some first aid medical kits for MSF's hospital in Rutshuru and also some materials to repair the water supply installation of Rutshuru, which was damaged in the fighting."

Both the rebel National Congress for People's Defense and the Congolese government have assured U.N. officials they will allow humanitarian assistance to enter rebel-held areas. Many humanitarian operations were disrupted when the rebels captured Rutshuru after launching a new offensive one week ago.

The rebel leader, former general Laurent Nkunda, declared a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday after his forces advanced to the edge of Goma. That ceasefire has held, but Nkunda threatened Sunday to overthrow the government in Kinshasa if it does not agree to direct negotiations.

The Congolese government has said it will only accept talks as part of an existing negotiating framework that involves all of the region's rebel groups and militias.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the past week's offensive, and about 250,000 have fled their homes since the latest wave of fighting began in August. British foreign secretary David Miliband, who visited the region on Saturday and Sunday with his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner, said there are 1.6 million people displaced in the area.

Miliband called for increased humanitarian aid, but did not endorse sending European troops, a proposal favored by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The European Union sent a similar force to Ituri province, to the north of Goma, for three weeks in 2003.

Pressed on the issue in an interview with the BBC Monday, Miliband declined to rule out the possibility of sending British troops, but suggested that any extra soldiers should be sent as part of the U.N. mission.

The head of U.N. peacekeeping, Alain Leroy, arrived Sunday in Congo. Mounoubai says MONUC is preparing to redeploy some of its forces.

"MONUC is going to reconfigure its force in the North Kivu, concentrating more troops into Goma and the surroundings of Goma, and probably moving some troops from some parts of the DRC into North Kivu," said Mounoubai.

Roughly 5,000 of the mission's 17,000 troops are currently deployed in North Kivu province, and about 600 of those are in Goma.

Nkunda, who earlier fought in a rebel group led by current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, says he is protecting the region's ethnic Tutsi minority from the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia, many of whose members were involved in Rwanda's 1994 genocide, and who Nkunda claims are cooperating with Congo's government.

The government of Congo has accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda's forces with tanks and other support, and Human Rights Watch has charged that Nkunda is recruiting soldiers in Rwanda. Both Rwanda and Nkunda have denied such charges.

Regional and western diplomats are considering a proposal by Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, who is also the chairman of the African Union, to hold a regional summit on the conflict this week.

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