"Masisi has completely emptied of all inhabitants. They've all run away," Jean Kugaya, an aid worker with the relief agency World Vision, told Reuters.

Displacements

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said it could not confirm the situation in Masisi but it was worried by a rise in the number of internally displaced people in recent weeks.

""We are taking steps this time to finish with
this situation, which is beginning to make us look ridiculous"


Delphin Kahimbi, army operations commander
in North Kivu
"We fear that with these increasing confrontations there will be more and more displacements, creating more [refugee] sites, and they will become increasingly difficult to manage," Jens Hessemann, UNHCR spokesman, said.

"It was another attack by the insurgents," Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, army operations commander in North Kivu, said referring to Nkunda's troops.

"We are taking steps this time to finish with this situation, which is beginning to make us look ridiculous."

Rene Abandi, Nkunda's spokesman, blamed the army for provoking the violence.
   
"We think they're envisaging an apocalyptic scenario. They want to exterminate us," he said.

In 2004, Nkunda led two army brigades, around 4,000 men, into the bush and briefly captured Bukavu, the capital of neighbouring South Kivu.

He faces an international arrest warrant for war crimes allegedly committed at the time.

Joseph Kabila, the president, promised to bring peace to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo after last year winning the country's first democratic election in more than four decades.

Mixed brigades

Thousands of Nkunda's fighters were brought into special mixed brigades within the army as part of a January truce brokered by neighbouring Rwanda but violence has continued and last week those fighters began abandoning their positions.

At least five soldiers loyal to the government have been killed in fighting since then, but there had been hope that the violence had been halted after meetings earlier this week between army officers and Nkunda's commanders.

"Those who are shooting on their comrades are criminals. He [Nkunda] killed in Kisangani, he killed in Bukavu and he continues to kill ... he must answer for his acts," Chikez Diemu, the defence minister, said.
   
He said two brigades of government soldiers were heading towards Katale, but added: "We must take a responsible approach. We are in favour of a peaceful solution."

Sylvie Van Den Wildenberg, spokeswoman in North Kivu for the country's 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC), said: "This is a very serious and obvious lack of respect for the commitment made by the pro-Nkunda elements [within the mixed brigades]."

"MONUC has reinforced its troops in the Masisi," she said.

The UN World Food Programme has estimated that at least 200,000 people have been displaced by violence linked to Nkunda's fighters since the beginning of the year.