GOMA, Congo — Congo's warring rivals traded accusations Tuesday that Angola, Zimbabwe and Rwanda are mobilizing forces to fight in Congo, as the prime minister flew into this besieged city to assess weeks of fighting that has displaced a quarter-million people.
The accusations of foreign involvement, reminiscent of a disastrous 1998-2002 war that drew in eight African nations, stoked fears of a wider conflict in this mineral-rich nation.
The fighting has forced tens of thousands of refugees to struggle through the countryside with what belongings they can carry. Tropical rainstorms, which drench eastern Congo every day, add to their misery.
On Tuesday, downpours sent refugees lucky enough to have shelter rushing to tents and huts made of woven banana leaves, while others huddled under plastic sheeting as they trudged through the thick red mud.
In Kibati, a camp for the displaced just north of Goma, aid workers from the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps gave water and high-energy biscuits to thousands of hungry children lined up in the searing heat.
Outside the distribution center, thousands of children who had not received the tokens needed to receive food shoved and pushed, holding their hands out in supplication, eyes wide with desperation.
"The people here don't have food, and they are hungry," said Oxfam's Rebecca Wynn. "Some people are going into the banana fields around the camp, which is very dangerous because there are drunk soldiers around. They're risking their lives, but they are hungry and desperate."
Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito arrived in Goma just before dusk Tuesday and met with U.N. envoy Alan Doss, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy and local officials. He planned to meet with refugees today to assess the humanitarian crisis.
Despite a week-old cease-fire, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's Rwandan-backed rebels vowed insurgents would march on the capital, Kinshasa, after the government refused Nkunda's demand for direct talks.
"If they won't negotiate with us, then they leave us little choice," rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said. "We will start fighting again and we will continue until we take Kinshasa."
Communications Minister Lambert Mende said President Joseph Kabila's administration was "open for dialogue" with all rebel and militia groups in the region — but would not meet Nkunda's group alone.
The Congo government's first priority is to "normalize our relations with all our neighbors, above all Rwanda," Mende added.
Suggestions that other African nations are being drawn into the conflict have fueled fears of a wider conflict, adding urgency to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's attempts to bring Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame together for talks. Kagame is believed to wield strong influence over the Tutsi-led rebels.
The rebels on Tuesday accused close Congo ally Angola and Zimbabwe of mobilizing to back government forces against the Tutsi fighters, while the government — backed by reports from U.N. peacekeepers — has said Rwanda is helping the insurgents.
The groundwork "is being laid for a generalized war in the region … foreign troops (are) preparing to make war against us," rebel spokesman Bisimwa said.
Zimbabwe has strongly denied any military involvement, while Angola did not comment.
Though Rwanda has strongly denied any military involvement in the latest fighting, the U.N. says Uruguayan peacekeepers saw Rwandan artillery fire into Congo last week as Nkunda's forces advanced. The Uruguayan army chief, Gen. Jorge Rosales, said intelligence reports indicated Rwandan troops were already "integrated in the rebel forces."