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Refugees struggle to reach home in eastern Congo

Thousands of war-weary refugees set out on foot for their homes in eastern Congo today, taking advantage of a cease-fire as American and UN envoys joined efforts there to find a political solution to the region's long-running rebellion.

Troops from Laurent Nkunda's renegade movement manned checkpoints outside Goma, the eastern provincial capital where they halted their advance Wednesday and called the truce after an upsurge of fighting this week. He said he wanted the cease-fire to allow humanitarian help to get through and refugees to go home.

Tens of thousands of people who fled their homes to get away from the battlefront between Congo's army and the rebels have sought shelter where they could, scattered around the region, trying to keep their families together.

The UN refugee agency said it was getting reports that 50,000 people have been forced out of refugee camps and settlements in rebel-held areas near the town of Rutshuru in recent days.

The uprooted were in "desperate need of help," the agency chief Antonio Guterres said in Geneva, Switzerland.

Associated Press reporters followed the flood of misery, past bodies of several soldiers on the outskirts of the besieged capital. 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 from Goma.

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

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.

Nkunda, who said Thursday that he wanted direct talks with the Congo government, began a low-level rebellion in 2004, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-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 top US envoy for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, and Alan Doss, the top UN envoy in Congo, flew into Goma on Friday to try to help. One of the aims of the diplomatic efforts is to get Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to sit down together and sort out the issues at the root of the conflict.

Frazer and Doss were met by Goma's governor, Julien Mpaluku, along with government ministers and local officials. The peacekeepers also put on an unusual show of force, with at least four tanks deployed around the city, armored cars on patrol as well as UN troops with riot shields patrolling on foot.

France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband were to leave immediately for Congo and were expected to go to Goma as well as the Congo capital, Kinshasa. The Foreign Office said Miliband would also go to Rwanda.

The cease-fire Nkunda called on Wednesday night appeared to be holding Friday morning.

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.

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 outside Kibumba, there was an abandoned UN 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.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking to reporters in New Delhi, urged all sides to respect the cease-fire. He also said he was concerned about attacks on UN workers by Congolese who accused them of not protecting the population.

This comes from a purely, some purely misunderstandings from them," Ban said. "United Nations is there to keep peace and stability."