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DR CONGO: Aid Agencies Fear Humanitarian Disaster in North Kivu

Ulrich Knapp

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 30 2008 (IPS) - The situation in the strategic city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was relatively calm Thursday after a night of fierce shooting and widespread looting, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported.

Tens of thousands of displaced Congolese have fled to the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma.  Credit: MONUC/Marie Frechon

Tens of thousands of displaced Congolese have fled to the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma. Credit: MONUC/Marie Frechon

However, tens of thousands of Congolese fleeing the latest fighting between government forces and armed opposition groups is straining the already overburdened system of camps for North Kivu province's estimated one million internally displaced persons.

"The humanitarian situation at the moment is terrible," said Jaya Murthy, the spokesperson for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF in the eastern DRC. "We have about between 40,000 and 50 000 people that are in a couple of small camps five kilometres outside of [the provincial capital of] Goma."

UNHCR also reported that many Congolese were heading towards Uganda looking for safety. Its team at the border said that on Thursday, some 8,000 entered Uganda at the Busanza border crossing.

Most of them are staying with host families and in public buildings, such as schools and churches. But around 2,000 of the refugees have opted to be transferred to the Nakivale refugee settlement further inside Uganda.

Most of the refugees in Uganda are dispersed over a large area, and the first major challenge, besides water and sanitation, will be the provision of food, as the area generally depends on local food imports from the DRC, UNHCR says.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said that it was able to distribute food to key nutritional centres and hospitals inside Goma on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes has called on the government and all armed groups in the area to protect civilians and to facilitate the work of humanitarian organisations.

"We all hope that Wednesday's ceasefire will quickly help to restore minimum security conditions and allow humanitarian actors to work with civilian authorities to assess needs and mount emergency operations to address them," Holmes said. "Unconditional access, and respect for the independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarians as they go about their essential work have to be a top priority."

The Security Council, in a presidential statement on Wednesday night, condemned the recent offensive of the Congrès national pour la défense du peuple (CNDP) in the eastern DRC, and demanded its immediate end.

In the statement read by Security Council President, Ambassador Zhang Yesui of China, the Council also welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire by the group's leader, Laurent Nkunda.

The Council called on the U.N. mission in the country (MONUC) to take robust actions to protect civilians at risk and to deter any attempt to threaten the political process by any armed group.

Expressing concern at reports of heavy weapons fire across the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, the Council also called on the authorities in both countries to take concrete steps to defuse tensions and restore stability in the region, and called on all regional governments to cease all support to armed groups.

In regard to beefing up the MONUC force, the Council said it would "expeditiously study" the request of the Secretariat in view of developments on the ground.

Rights groups say it is clear that more U.N. peacekeeping troops must be quickly sent to the region.

"We're calling for the United Nations Security Council to take immediate and urgent steps to make sure that MONUC…is reinforced and provided with the military hardware in order to enable it to discharge its mandate of protecting civilians in eastern DRC," Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa programme, told Voice of America news.

"There are countries obviously that provide both moral and material support to some of these armed groups operating in eastern DRC. They need to be leaned upon to stop these attacks. They're killing civilians, women and children. And if not checked, we will see a situation where neighbouring countries also begin to be destabilised."

The DRC government has accused Rwanda of supporting the CNDP, while Rwanda accuses the DRC army of siding with the Rwandan Hutu armed group, the FDLR.

"We cannot wait to see another situation develop in eastern DRC, which is similar to the one witnessed between 1998 and 2002, where more than three million people died. It has to be stopped," Hondora said.

The United Nations has less than 6,000 of its 17,000-strong DRC peacekeeping mission in the east, because of unrest in other provinces. In a video-link conference on Tuesday, Alan Doss, special representative of the secretary-general in DRC, said the force was badly overstretched and urgently needed reinforcement.

Earlier this month, Doss asked the Security Council for more peacekeepers, air support and other equipment. The Council has not yet responded to his request.

MONUC said on Wednesday rebels loyal to General Laurent Nkunda had fired five rockets on a U.N. convoy assigned to protect civilians on a road near Goma on Tuesday. The U.N. Mission emphasised that it will continue to intervene to protect civilians and urban centres across North Kivu.

DRC's 1998-2003 war and an ongoing humanitarian crisis have killed more than five million people. With 17,000 troops deployed, MONUC is currently the U.N.'s biggest mission.

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