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Congo's conflict could cross borders

UN forces hold off a rebel advance in the wake of a failed offensive by government forces.

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Holiday celebrations are the last thing on anyone's mind here in Congo's war-torn east.

Thousands of weary people wander the muddy roads, pondering where to flee to next. Government troops mooch from the displaced, clutching translucent green plastic bags of provisions while their guns swing lazily from their shoulders.

The troops' presence was supposed to be a major and sustained offensive, designed to rid Congo of a rebel warlord and impose the rule of a government elected last year in the country's first free and fair vote in decades. With the help of an 18,000-strong United Nations force, thousands of government troops and tons of munitions were bused and airlifted into place here in North Kivu Province.

Yet, only a few days into the offensive, the rebels last week counterattacked, sending the army into a disorderly retreat and displacing fresh waves of people across this province. "People here have been thrown into one of the most terrible tragedies," says UN spokesperson Kemal Saiki. Even before the last couple of weeks, he says, there were 800,000 people in this part of the country "who have been thrown onto the roads."

More than 55,000 people were displaced this month alone, according to UN officials.

The situation is worst in a territory called Masisi, behind the rebel lines, where food stockpiles could run out.

"It is very difficult for humanitarians to get through the frontline," says Patrick Lavand'homme, at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

"The World Food Programme got up to Masisi less than a month ago," before the start of the aborted government offensive, adds Mr. Lavand'homme. "But we need to get access back in the next two weeks, because food is the commodity that you need to renew every month."

But that won't be easy. Even in the best of times, the narrow roads can be treacherous, as they wind along mountain passes, and seasonal rains have turned dust tracks into slippery marshes. As a result, the last food delivery was 200 tons, rather than a planned 300 tons.

Retreat of government troops

Visiting the front lines, it is clear that only the UN blue helmets now stand in the way of a much bigger advance by the rebels.

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