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Thousands more flee rebel fighting in Congo

Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo fought pro-government militiamen for a second day in the town of Kiwanja today, forcing thousands to flee.

A wider ceasefire between the rebels and the government was holding, however, and diplomats were trying to assemble a regional peace summit on Friday in Kenya.

Journalists who visited Kiwanja, in the east of the country, saw several thousand people on the roads, including mothers with babies on their backs, as insurgents loyal to warlord Laurent Nkunda searched houses.

Kiwanja is about 45 miles north of the provincial capital Goma, and the clashes between rebels and a militia known as the Mai Mai appear to be taking place on the town's outskirts or in the hills and fields of coffee and corn beyond.

On the edge of town, hundreds of people took shelter at a roofless, abandoned school beside a UN base manned by Indian peacekeepers.

Fighting in DR Congo intensified in August and has since displaced around 250,000 people, forcing exhausted refugees to struggle through the countryside, lugging belongings, children, even goats.

Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern DR Congo every day, have added to their misery.

After forcing the army into a humiliating retreat and reaching the outskirts of Goma, Mr Nkunda called a ceasefire on 29 October. The rebel leader has warned, though, that war could resume if the government does not accept his demand for direct negotiations.

The government says it will talk - but only with all rebel and militia groups, not just with Mr Nkunda.

A regional summit is expected on Friday in Nairobi, Kenya, attended by DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Mr Kagame is believed to wield strong influence over Mr Nkunda's Tutsi-led rebels.

The conflict in eastern DR Congo is fuelled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and DR Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002, which drew neighbouring countries in a mad rush to plunder Congo's mineral wealth.

Mr Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to DR Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis.

Mr Nkunda, who defected from DR Congo's army in 2004, now says he is fighting to liberate all of DR Congo from a corrupt government.

Rebels also say regional powers are again getting involved in the fighting. They accuse DR Congo allies Angola and Zimbabwe of mobilising to back government forces, while the government says Rwanda is helping the insurgents.

Today, Rwanda's government called DR Congo's crisis an "internal" problem.

"The prevailing assumption that the crisis is a matter between Rwanda and the (DR Congo) is wrong," it said.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) said today's fighting, which appears isolated around Kiwanja, stopped it from visiting refugee camps near Rutshuru that had been deserted. Residents have said the rebels forced them to leave, but it was unclear why.

The UN children's agency criticised the Mai Mai for recruiting 37 children to bolster their forces against rebels just last week.

"Child recruitment by all armed groups has increased significantly over the past two months," the agency said. "Unicef reminds all armed groups of their obligation not to recruit and use children, and to release all boys and girls under the age of 18."

WFP began distributing 10-day rations today to more than 135,000 recently displaced people in six camps around Goma.