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GOMA, Congo - Congolese rebels said they reached the outskirts of Goma and declared a cease-fire Wednesday to prevent panic in the city, where retreating government soldiers were commandeering cars and firing wildly as people fled in torrents of human misery.

Gunfire crackled throughout the city with occasional booms from heavy artillery, apparently from fleeing army troops who residents said were out of control.

Tens of thousands of residents and refugees poured out of the city - in cars, on motorbikes, or by foot. Some walked with backs doubled over from bundles of belongings, others dragged children, goats and pigs away from advancing rebel troops.

Goma's governor, Julien Mpaluku, acknowledged that panic was spreading in the eastern provincial capital. He said he could not confirm that the army had deserted Goma, but stressed that U.N. peacekeepers were still in charge and that rebels had not yet entered the city.

Still, the U.S. Embassy said its officials were leaving Goma and urged American citizens to follow. Hundreds of foreign aid workers were also trying to evacuate.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire signed in January.

"We are not far from Goma, but because there is a state of destabilization in the town we decided in our movement to cease fire," Nkunda was quoted as saying by the BBC.

The U.N. says its peacekeeping mission - a 17,000-strong force - is now stretched to the limit with the surge in fighting and needs more troops quickly. Troops from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa make up most of the existing force. Hopes for backup from the European Union dimmed. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the EU had considered sending troops to reinforce U.N. peacekeepers in Congo but "a certain number of countries refused."