Rebel Congolese troops bearing down on the city of Goma in the east of the country have declared a unilateral ceasefire. They say it is to prevent panic among people living there.
Earlier, government troops were said to have pulled out in the face of the rebel advance, which was threatening to overwhelm them, and a UN peacekeeping force.
The North Kivu province has been riddled with continuous violence since 2003, despite the end of a five year internal Congolese war.
The United Nations has deployed 17,600 troops – its biggest peacekeeping force – to prevent a return to all-out war, and to protect civilians. The head of the force said they are ‘stretched to the limit.’
Witnesses in the provincial capital Goma reported there was no military presence there, and with the troops gone, a chaotic exodus of civilians began.
Four days of fighting in the new rebel offensive has already displaced tens of thousands of civilians.
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, warned of a humanitarian crisis of ‘catastrophic proportions.’
One refugee said: “We have no food and no water. Our kids are hungry. They are thirsty. So we are hoping this war will stop so we can go back to our home village and get the food we left behind.”
The rebels initially said they were protecting minority ethnic Tutsis, particularly from attacks by Hutu rebels who, they say, crossed the border from neighbouring Rwanda.