KIBATI, Congo - Hungry, frightened Congolese refugees pleaded for protection from marauding fighters on Sunday while foreign governments discussed aid but hesitated over sending more troops.
European, U.S. and U.N. envoys have criss-crosssd the Great Lakes region trying to prevent a newly resurgent Tutsi rebellion in the eastern Congolese borderlands from escalating into a rerun of Democratic Republic of Congo's 1998-2003 war.
After a weekend diplomatic shuttle that took them to Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania, the French and British foreign ministers called for more international aid to Congo's North Kivu province, where an offensive by rebel general Laurent Nkunda has displaced tens of thousands of people.
A ceasefire by Nkunda appeared to be holding on Sunday.
At Kibati, north of the provincial capital Goma, refugees among 70,000 people sheltering there said they were desperate for protection and would welcome troops from Europe to bolster the 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers already deployed in Congo.
"We want to return to our village, but only if there is security. I have not eaten for six days," said one elderly woman, Rgwasa Nyakaruhije. "We would be very happy if they sent in a European Union force."
Around her, displaced civilians huddled in groups in the muddy grass, some under umbrellas or parasols.
"The urgent need for food, water, shelter and care must be covered through international mobilization and the securing of routes to allow aid to reach all North Kivu," the French and British ministers, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband, said in a joint statement after their visit.
But they stopped short of announcing a deployment of European Union troops to Congo. France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, had mooted the proposal earlier in the week but encountered resistance from some member states.
Instead, they recommended reinforcing the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo, already the biggest in the world but badly stretched across a nation the size of Western Europe.
"The U.N. is not providing any security. If the French soldiers came, they would be very welcome," said Zainabo Bunyurura, 40, who fled to Kibati from her home in Kibumba when the rebels attacked.
She said they burned down her house.
The U.N. says Congo's army has also killed and looted.
Max Hadorn, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Congo, said restoring security was paramount.
"For us, it's less a question of being able to mobilize aid but rather of being able to enter different zones with security guaranteed," he told Reuters.
TUTSI AND HUTU INSURGENTS
An estimated one million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu by two years of violence that has persisted despite the end of the 1998-2003 war in the vast, former Belgian colony, which is rich in copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds.
Kouchner and Miliband backed political solutions, including a regional summit that could be held next week to bring together the Congolese and Rwandan presidents, Joseph Kabila and Paul Kagame, to discuss the conflict on their borders. Both Congo and Rwanda have accused each other of backing rival rebel groups.
The two presidents have signaled they are ready to take part in talks on ending intertwined insurgencies in Congo that trace their origin back to Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Less clear is what participation will be given to renegade Tutsi General Nkunda, whose recent offensive on Goma has rekindled the ethnic fault lines that traverse eastern Congo.
Nkunda, who says his four-year-old bush rebellion aims to defend east Congolese Tutsis, says he is ready to talk to the government but wants a neutral mediator. He had abandoned a previous January peace deal, calling it government-imposed.
He accuses Kabila's army of backing Rwandan Hutu rebels operating in east Congo who took part in the 1994 genocide killings in Rwanda of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Kabila's government denies this and has in turn accused Tutsi-led Rwanda of backing Nkunda, a charge denied by Kigali.
Foreign governments are pressing Kabila and Kagame to revive a November deal signed in Nairobi under which both pledged to take steps to end the rival Tutsi and Hutu rebellions.
Anti-corruption campaign group Global Witness says the armed factions in North Kivu, including Congo's army, are using the province's cassiterite (tin ore), gold and coltan to gain profits and perpetuate the violence, abetted by willing buyers.
"For as long as there are buyers who are willing to trade, directly or indirectly, with groups responsible for grave human rights abuses, there is no incentive for these groups to lay down their arms," Global Witness director Patrick Alley said.