Emergency talks get under way today in Nairobi aimed at averting a full scale war in eastern Congo after a week-long ceasefire between the government and the rebel army of renegade general Laurent Nkunda appeared to have unravelled.
UN peacekeepers who reached the rebel-held village of Kiwanja yesterday found burnt huts and the bodies of at least a dozen men in civilian clothes. They appeared to have been shot or blown apart by grenades. Gen Nkunda's forces had stormed Kiwanja the night before in response to what they claimed were attacks by government-backed militia. Some 30,000 people fled and many slept out in the open. Fighting flared in at least two other locations in North Kivu province, with the notoriously ineffective Congolese army once more abandoning its positions, this time in Nyanzale.
Gen Nkunda, speaking from his mountain base 40 miles north of Goma, denied that his troops had attacked civilians, insisting they had been targeting Mai-Mai militia, made of up of Hutu fighters, who had attacked them earlier in the day.
The people of Kiwanja told a different story. They said fighters had gone door to door killing indiscriminately. "They knocked on the doors, when the people opened, they killed them with their guns," Simo Bramporiki, an old man who said his wife and child had been killed, told Reuters.
The general's fighters are eight miles from Goma, the largest city in the region and centre of aid operations, with little apart from the peacekeepers from MONUC (UN troops in Congo) opposing them. The UN troops are under orders to stop any armed groups entering the city, raising the prospect of full-scale battle.
Aid agencies have appealed to the UN and EU to rapidly reinforce MONUC, or deploy European troops.
With so much at stake there will be intense pressure on the region's two main political players, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Joseph Kabila, his counterpart in Congo. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has vowed to put the two together, while the job of persuading them to use their influence to stop the fighting falls on the UN envoy and former president of Nigeria, Olesegun Obasanjo.
Britain, which is Rwanda's main donor, has been urged to put pressure on Mr Kagame by threatening to withhold some of that aid.
Mr Ban, who yesterday expressed concern about the renewed violence, is trying to encourage Mr Kabila to speak directly to Mr Nkunda, who is wanted for war crimes by Kinshasa. The renegade general has threatened to attack Goma if the government continues to refuse negotiations.
A lightning advance by Gen Nkunda to the outskirts of Goma presaged a return to a regional war which as recently as 1998 saw eight different armies fighting simultaneously.
Analysts point out that while the talks go on in Nairobi and Congo's civilians flee, large amounts of money are being made from illegal mining, lumber and quarrying operations.
Armed aid convoys have reached only small pockets of those affected and this tactic has been criticised. Anne Taylor, from Médecins Sans Frontières, said the confusion of arms and aid was hindering a coherent response. "There is a risk of aid being manipulated by political or military groups and of aid agencies being seen as parties to the conflict," she said.
Meanwhile, Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung confirmed one of its journalists, Thomas Scheen, had been kidnapped by militia fighters in eastern Congo. Officials said Mr Scheen was kidnapped by the pro-government Mai-Mai militia along with his assistant.