By Yves Boussen
KIBATI, Congo, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Thousands of Congolese civilians displaced by a rebel attack streamed out of an eastern city on Friday to seek safety as diplomatic efforts intensified to turn a shaky ceasefire into a lasting peace.
Aid workers and witnesses reported families clogging roads out of Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, to where tens of thousands had fled in panic this week in the face of an offensive by Congolese Tutsi rebels.
"The situation is catastrophic. There is no other word," International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Pierre-Emmanuel Ducruet said in Congo's capital Kinshasa.
Taking advantage of an uneasy calm in and around Goma after heavy fighting earlier this week, many foreign humanitarian agencies restarted operations, distributing water and food to displaced civilians at Kibati, 20 km (12 miles) to the north.
Rebel General Laurent Nkunda, who says he is fighting to defend the Tutsi minority in Congo's violence-plagued east, declared a ceasefire late on Wednesday after advancing almost to the limits of Goma, driving back government troops and putting stretched U.N. peacekeepers on the defensive.
Nkunda, who has abandoned a January peace deal, has called for a neutral mediator to negotiate.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday the ceasefire must be kept, as European and U.S. diplomatic envoys lobbied Great Lakes neigbours Congo and Rwanda to seek a definitive end to the enduring conflict on their borders.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner will travel to Congo on Friday, a French spokesman said in Paris.
After overnight violence in Goma in Wednesday, in which aid workers said retreating government troops ran amok, killing and looting, many refugees used the ceasefire and calm in the city on Friday to try to return to the countryside.
"Life in Goma is very hard, so we prefer to go home. There is no food in town, we have had no support. We're returning, but we don't think it will be safe," said Bianze Rubuto, who was leaving Goma with his two wives and four children.
ICRC's Ducruet said frightened civilians were moving both north and south out of Goma to escape potential combat zones.
Nkunda, who blamed government soldiers for the violence in Goma, has said he has ordered his fighters to open up "humanitarian corridors" through their lines.
"The situation seems to be very calm in Goma at the moment. Access to Kibati opened up this morning, but we don't have access to Rutshuru or any other areas. We are distributing 6,000 biscuits to 6,000 children in Kibati, Jaya Murphy, spokesman for U.N. children's agency UNICEF in Goma, said.
NEED FOR PROTECTION
Human rights groups appealed for the international community to immediately reinforce the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUC) and to press Congo and Rwanda to end any kind of support for rival rebel groups in Congo's east.
EU President France has suggested the idea of an EU military force being deployed to protect civilians in Goma, but it is not clear whether this plan will garner enough support to happen.
"We urge the Security Council to send immediate assistance to U.N. troops in the form of additional troop numbers, air support and other equipment," Amnesty International's deputy Africa programme director Tawanda Hondora said in a statement.
"The international community must not stand by as the conflict degenerates to levels last seen between 1998 and 2002 in eastern DRC."
Although a five-year war in Congo sucking in its neighbours ended in 2003, conflict has persisted in the east as armed groups, some born out of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, have continued to prey on civilians, killing, looting and raping.
Tutsi rebel chief Nkunda has accused Congolese President Joseph Kabila's government and armed forces of supporting Rwandan Hutu rebels in east Congo who previously took part in the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Kabila's government denies this and has in turn accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda, even with regular troops, a charge rejected by the Rwandan government.
In a diplomatic shuttle to Kinshasa and Kigali, senior EU, U.N. and U.S. envoys are pressing both countries to implement agreements to end all support for the feuding rebel groups, and to not allow their territory to be used by them.