Kenya's former president Uhuru Kenyatta arrived Tuesday in eastern DR Congo's main city of Goma, as fresh clashes with M23 rebels occurred just to the north, sending thousands fleeing.
Troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were battling M23 fighters in Kibumba, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Goma, security officials and local residents said.
The M23 has recently seized swathes of territory in North Kivu province, displacing tens of thousands of people in their advance.
Kibumba is considered one of the last obstacles to the rebels before Goma, a commercial hub of one million people on the Rwandan border.
On Tuesday afternoon, rumours that the M23 was approaching sent a fresh wave of people fleeing to the Kanyaruchinya displacement camp, south of Kibumba.
About 40,000 people are currently in the camp, according to its head.
A security official who asked for anonymity said that people began to flee after seeing soldiers themselves retreating towards Goma after clashes with M23 rebels.
North Kivu's military governor, General Constant Ndima, urged people to remain calm late Tuesday. "I want to reassure you... Loyalist forces are containing the enemy on the heights of Kibumba," he told reporters.
The crisis has cratered relations between the DRC and its smaller central African neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa accuses of backing the militia.
Uhuru Kenyatta, a mediator for the seven-nation East African Community (EAC), arrived in Goma on Tuesday and visited Kanyaruchinya.
He told reporters late Tuesday that the stories he had heard were "heart-breaking".
"I cannot ignore what I have seen," Kenyatta said. "I must say to all parties: You cannot negotiate in the face of human catastrophe".
- 'De-escalation' -
Kenyatta's visit to the DRC is the latest in a round of diplomatic bids to defuse the crisis in the impoverished country's volatile east.
The former president landed in the Congolese capital Kinshasa on Sunday for talks, following on the heels of a visit from Angolan President Joao Lourenco.
The EAC has also called for a "peace dialogue" in Kenya's capital Nairobi on November 21.
In addition, the bloc has agreed to send a peacekeeping mission to eastern DRC. Kenyan troops arrived in Goma over the weekend, as part of that operation.
On Monday, Kenyatta urged armed groups to put down their arms and return to the negotiating table.
"There is nothing that can be gained through the barrel of a gun," he had told reporters.
On Tuesday, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had discussed the situation with Rwanda's Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, on the margins of the G20 meeting in Indonesia.
"I underscored the United States’ deep concern about the continuing violence in eastern DRC, and called on Rwanda to take active steps to facilitate de-escalation," he said in a tweet.
- Rebel return -
Biruta, for his part, tweeted that Rwanda is committed to regional diplomatic mechanisms to bring peace to eastern DRC, as well as to finding a political solution to the crisis.
Over 120 armed groups roam the region, many of which are a legacy of regional wars which flared at the turn of the century.
The M23 -- a mostly Congolese Tutsi group -- first leapt to prominence in 2012 when it briefly captured Goma before being driven out.
But the rebel group returned in late 2021 after years of dormancy, claiming the DRC had failed to honour a promise to integrate its fighters into the army, among other grievances.
It captured the strategic town of Bunagana on the Ugandan border in June. In recent weeks, the rebels have also won a string of victories against the Congolese army, edging closer towards Goma.
The DRC expelled Rwanda's ambassador in late October amid the renewed M23 offensive.
Despite official denials from Kigali, an unpublished report for the UN seen by AFP in August pointed to Rwandan involvement with the M23.
Rwanda accuses the Congolese government of colluding with Hutu militants who fled across the border after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.