The first humanitarian convoy to go behind rebel lines since violence erupted in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo more than two months ago set off today.
United Nations peacekeepers escorted the 12-vehicle convoy from the provincial capital of Goma, carrying medical supplies for clinics looted and destroyed by retreating government troops.
Both the Congolese army and the rebel leader assured its safe passage, said Gloria Fernandez, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in eastern DR Congo.
She said medical supplies and tablets to purify water were the priority, and that the convoy was not carrying food though it is desperately needed by Congolese displaced by the latest fighting in this African nation.
Some 250,000 people have been displaced since August, Ms Fernandez said.
Rebels, however, were allowing farmers to pass through to Goma in lorries packed with cabbages, onions and spinach.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive on August 28 and brought his fighters to the gates of Goma last week before declaring a unilateral ceasefire.
The conflict is fuelled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and DR Congo’s unrelenting civil wars.
Mr Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to DR Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis.
All sides are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining DR Congo’s vast mineral riches, giving them no financial interest in stopping the fighting.
Tens of thousands of people in Kibati have received little food aid since they fled their homes a week ago.
Ms Fernandez said families here have been forced to move four or five times in the past 10 days.
“They go around in circles... fleeing the movement of troops and the lines of combat.”
Kibati was scheduled to receive food aid tomorrow, Ms Fernandez said.
The aid convoy travelling today was heading past Kibati to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma.
The priority is to take pressure of Rutshuru hospital, the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people, Ms Fernandez said.
She said clinics there have been “looted and completely destroyed.”
Mr Nkunda halted his rebels’ advance on Wednesday and called the ceasefire, saying he wanted to allow humanitarian help through and refugees to go home.
Mr Nkunda began a low-level insurgency in 2004, claiming DR Congo’s transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi ethnic group. Despite agreeing in January to a UN-brokered ceasefire, he resumed fighting in August.
Demand for minerals has fuelled DR Congo’s conflicts for years, and Mr Nkunda has complained about a $9bn (€7.02bn) agreement in which China gets access to DR Congo’s minerals in return for building a highway and railway that would open up the remote mining interior to southern neighbours.
Mr Nkunda’s rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted DR Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations.
DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in the country’s first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.
DR Congo has charged Mr Nkunda with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Mr Nkunda’s command in 2002 and 2004.
Rights groups have also accused government forces of atrocities and widespread looting.
Only 6,000 peacekeepers of the 17,000-strong UN mission in DR Congo are in the east because of unrest in other provinces. The UN force is the body’s largest peacekeeping mission in the world.