Aid not reaching Congo refugees stranded behind rebel lines

Democratic Republic CongoNairobi/Goma - Emergency aid is not reaching many of the tens of thousands of civilians displaced by fighting between rebels and government troops in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned Wednesday.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has provided food to the displaced living in refugee camps around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, but the poor security situation has prevented the delivery of aid to those stranded behind rebel lines.

"There are huge unmet needs," Erna van Goor, head of mission for MSF in Goma, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa. "We are concerned about the sheer size of this situation."

Civilians have been caught in the middle of heavy clashes since rebel forces led by Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda began a major offensive over two weeks ago, routing the Congolese army.

Fighting has continued on a smaller scale despite Nkunda calling a ceasefire as his troops were on the verge of taking Goma. Nkunda says his men are sticking to the ceasefire and are only defending themselves from attacks by Hutu militia and government troops.

Aid agencies say that renewed fighting between Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and government forces has displaced a total of
250,000 people since late August.

Many of the refugees caught up in the fierce fighting of the last two weeks were forced to flee without even basic supplies such as blankets and are now caught outside in the rainy season.

The WFP said it this week distributed emergency rations to 140,000 people living in six camps around Goma, including the largest camp at Kibati, just north of the city.

Now the agency is planning to penetrate rebel lines to Rutshuru and Kiwanja, two of the towns seized by the CNDP in its offensive, later this week. However, it has no clear idea of the scale of the task awaiting it.

"It is difficult to tell how many people are there, because there has been so much movement, but we know there were 60,000 displaced living in camps in the area (before the rebel advance)," Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman in Nairobi, told dpa.

Cholera has also broken out amongst the displaced, although MSF said it was so far managing to treat the majority of those suffering from the disease.

To add to the civilians' woes, some have been targeted by both rebel and government forces.

The UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo (MONUC) said Tuesday that government soldiers looted from civilians in the Kanyabayonga area (175 kilometres north of Goma) and may also have raped women as they retreated from a rumoured CNDP advance.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday said that at least 50 civilians were killed in the North Kivu town of Kiwanja, most of them by Nkunda's forces.

Nkunda has warned that unless the DR Congo government talks to him directly, his forces - believed to number between 4,000 and 6,000 - will march on the capital Kinshasa.

The rebel general was last Friday left out of talks in Nairobi, which were attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

The DR Congo accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, who says he is fighting to protect Tutsis from Hutu militia who fled to DR Congo after the 1994 massacres in Rwanda, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

While there is scepticism about whether Nkunda's small force could succeed in taking the distant capital, most believe he is capable of taking Goma.

Peacekeepers are defending Goma, but MONUC chief Alan Doss has admitted his troops, numbering 17,000 across the whole of the sprawling central African nation, are stretched to their limit by the conflict.

Calls for more UN troops to be deployed have so far not been answered with any firm commitments.

Le Roy told reporters after the closed-door UN Security Council meeting late Tuesday that even the requested 3,000 extra troops would not be enough to fully protect non-combatants in the region.

However, Southern African leaders have said they would send a peacekeeping force if necessary and there have already been reports that Angolan troops have been backing the Congolese army.

There are fears that the whole region could be sucked back into the DR Congo, four years after the official end of a war that involved many regional nations.

More than 5 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the 1998-2003 war in the resource-rich nation, most of them from hunger and disease.

The conflict is often referred to as the African World War, owing to the large number of different armed forces involved. (dpa)

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