KINSHASA - Fighting between rebels and pro-government forces opened up on new front in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as southern African nations said they were ready to send in peacekeepers.
As Kinshasa warned it may deploy Angolan troops, raising fears of igniting the volatile Great Lakes region, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said it was prepared to provide assistance to the DRC armed forces.
The clashes on the borders of the two provinces of Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu started before dawn on Sunday and prompted thousands of people to flee, the United Nations said.
The fighting that has erupted in August with rebels led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, in violation of a January ceasefire, had so far been limited to Nord-Kivu.
Tomaz Salomao, the head of SADC, told reporters after a summit meeting in Johannesburg that the region backed calls for a ceasefire and the creation of a humanitarian corridor.
"SADC should immediately provide assistance to the armed forces of DRC," he said, reading out the summit's communique.
"SADC will not stand by and witness any destructive acts of violence by any armed groups... and if necessary will send peacekeeping forces," he said.
Salomao said a military advisory team would be deployed immediately to lend advice to the DRC's armed forces, while another team would be sent to evaluate the situation on the ground to determine what other help might be needed.
A military monitoring commission will also be dispateched to monitor DR Congo's border with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, he added.
Salomao said the DRC armed forces needed help to protect the country's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
He also said the region would ask the United Nations to expand the mandate of its peacekeeping mission, known as MONUC, which is not allowed to engage in active clashes in eastern DR Congo.
"Our position is to request the secretary general of the UN to revise the terms of reference and mandate of MONUC," Salomao said.
"Let's wait, watch and see how the performance and behaviour of MONUC will be on the ground," he said. "Then we can take a further decision on deployment or not of peacekeeping forces in the SADC region."
"We are aware that we are facing a tragedy and time is not on our side."
Salomao denied reports Angolan soldiers had already deployed inside the DR Congo, but said they could be sent in quickly.
"If required, they will be on the ground soon, subject to the assessment and the report made by the military experts," he said.
A spokesman for Nkunda's group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), quickly responded that adding Angolan troops in eastern DR Congo could spread violence throughout the region.
"It would risk setting the Great Lakes region on fire," said Bertrand Bisimwa, a CNDP spokesman. "It demonstrates the government's willingness to involve former international warmongers in the current crisis."
Angola sided with Kinshasa in the 1998-2003 regional conflict that erupted in the country then known as Zaire.
The fighting in eastern Congo has created a humanitarian catastrophe, with at least 250,000 people forced to flee their homes. The continuing violence has hampered efforts to deliver aid to them.
Fears of a cholera epidemic have added to the population's misery after 80 new cases of the disease were reported in the government-controlled area north of the Nord-Kivu capital of Goma by Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF).
"There are many displaced people in the zone who live under very bad sanitary conditions. All the risk factors are there for an explosion of a major epidemic," said MSF's local emergency programme coordinator Megan Hunter.
Sunday's six-hour flare-up of fighting around Ngungu involved CNDP rebels on one side and pro-government Mai-Mai militia and Hutu rebels of the FDLR, who include some of those responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, on the other, UN spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
Earlier he had reported that government forces (FARDC) had taken part but now said no Congolese regular troops had been involved.
South African President Kgalema Motlanthe backed calls Sunday for a stronger mandate for UN peacekeepers to deter the violence.
"We call for an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian assistance to the displaced people," he added, speaking at the start of the regional summit.
"We firmly believe that there is no military solution to the problem."
Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the calls for peace, condemning the "bloody clashes" and "atrocities" committed in Congo and calling for a return to peace.