KIBATI, November 8 — Government troops reinforced front-line positions Saturday in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where calm prevailed a day after fighting broke out with rebel forces.,
On the heels of a regional summit in Nairobi that called for a ceasefire, a UN official told AFP that Angolan soldiers had joined in combat Friday — despite Kinshasa’s denials that no foreign troops are on Congolese soil.
If the presence of foreign troops is verified, it would mark a significant regionalisation of a conflict that international experts fear could trigger yet another humanitarian catastrophe in central Africa.
The situation appeared calm Saturday along the front line on the northern edge of Kibati, a small town 12 kilometres (seven miles) from the Nord-Kivu provincial capital of Goma.
About one kilometre (1,000 yards) separated the two sides. An AFP reporter was able to cross the front line, with the consent of the combatants, without difficulty.
Some 150 troops were seen taking up positions, and another 200 to 300 en route to the front line, a day after government forces pushed the front line north by about one kilometre.
The conflict pits President Joseph Kabila’s government against the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, in an impoverished area rich in natural resources.
The United Nations and humanitarian aid groups said the latest round of fighting had displaced 253,000 civilians since September — and left at least another 100 dead.
Goma, a city of 500,000 inhabitants, remains in government hands, with nearly 1,000 UN peacekeepers on its streets.
In rebel-held territory, groups of 10 or 20 rebels were seen heading north towards Kibumba, 30 kilometres north of Goma, giving the impression that the CNDP is pulling back its front-line positions.
"The front line is very fluid," said Swiss Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, a spokesman in Kinshasa for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC).
"Everyone is reinforcing their positions to prepare for any eventuality," Dietrich said, adding that did not necessarily mean an offensive was in the offing.
Near the front line, however, a UN peacekeeping officer told AFP that Angolan troops had been seen Friday taking part in combat operations alongside government forces.
He said he met a Portuguese-speaking combatant who "told me that he was Angolan and that other (Angolan soldiers) were on the hill" at Kibati where Congolese government forces have set up camp.
Angola, once a Portuguese colony, sided with Kinshasa in the 1998-2003 regional conflict that erupted when Democratic Republic of Congo was known as Zaire.
On Friday, a diplomatic source told AFP that about 50 Angolan and Zimbabwean troops were conducting reconnaissance operations on behalf of government forces.
Kinshasa has repeatedly denied that foreign troops are on its soil — an assertion echoed by the UN mission, which has 17,000 blue-helmeted peacekeepers on the ground.
Dietrich noted, however, that there is "military cooperation" between Congo and Angola, and that "there are perhaps Angolan (military) instructors in country".
If Angolan troops are present, it could be seen as a provocation by neighbouring Rwanda, which denies Congolese allegations that it is supporting the rebels.
Kibati is five kilometres, as the crow flies, from the Rwanda border, in a district that Kigali regards as vital for its strategic interests.
Friday’s crisis summit in Nairobi called for an immediate ceasefire and the creation of humanitarian corridors, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that the conflict could spread.
Nkunda’s rebels boycotted the summit, saying the problems of the Congolese people would only be settled by direct talks with the Kinshasa government — something that Kabila refuses to accept.
"There should be an immediate ceasefire by all the armed groups and militias in Nord-Kivu," read the final declaration of the Nairobi summit that included Kabila and his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame.
It urged the disarming of rebel groups and a beefing-up of the UN peacekeeping mandate.