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Over 30,000 Congolese Refugees Flood Into Uganda

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Delegations from the Congolese government and rebel forces opened U.N.-brokered peace talks Monday, trying to resolve the violence that has displaced over a quarter of a million people in eastern Congo since August.

Special U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo said the talks aimed to establish a lasting cease-fire and allow aid deliveries into the troubled region. But neither rebel leader Laurent Nkunda nor Congolese president Joseph Kabila was present. Kabila has refused to meet with Nkunda so far, saying such a meeting would legitimize the rebels.

"It is an opportunity that must neither be lost nor wasted," Obasanjo said in the Kenyan capital, where the talks were being held. "Let us now get on with it."

More than 250,000 people have abandoned their homes since Nkunda's rebels launched an offensive on Aug. 28. The fighting is the latest round in years of conflict that began when Rwanda's genocidal Hutu fighters fled into the Congolese forest after killing over 500,000 Tutsis in 1994.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect Congo's minorities, especially ethnic Tutsis. But critics say Nkunda is more interested in raw power and Congo's mineral wealth.

Both government and rebel fighters have been accused of raping, mutilating and killing civilians.

The current force of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers _ the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world _ is expected to be reinforced with an additional 3,000 soldiers, but they may take several months to deploy.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency said more than 30,000 Congolese refugees have fled to neighboring Uganda since August.

"Health, water and sanitation remain a major challenge in the camps," said Roberta Russo, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Uganda.

In Brussels, Belgium, European Union nations were divided Monday over whether to send an EU peacekeeping force to eastern Congo after U.N. officials appealed for more troops.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht urged the 27-nation bloc to send a temporary "bridging force" to aid the U.N. peacekeepers already in Congo. So far, the peacekeepers have not been able to either stop the fighting or protect civilians in the area.

Belgium has been the most outspoken European country in appealing for help for Congo, its former colony.

But Britain, the Netherlands, France and Germany say their armed forces are stretched to the limit with deployments in Afghanistan, Chad, and the Balkans.

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Associated Press writers Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda, and Constant Brand in Brussels, Belgium contributed to this report.