DR Congo , U.N. sign cooperation deal on refugees
It was signed in the capital Kinshasa on Tuesday by Interior Minister Gaetan Kakudji and UNHCR's Great Lakes director Pierce Gerety, witnesses said.
The 15-article deal running until 2003 allows the refugee agency to operate freely in the vast Central African country, but says its activities must conform with the United Nations' mission.
President Laurent Kabila's government commits itself to help the UNHCR to work unimpeded and to protect the agency's personnel and equipment, the accord says.
"The HCR reaffirms its desire to contribute within its means to peace and national reconciliation efforts undertaken by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Gerety said at the signing ceremony.
Kakudji said the accord was historic and aimed primarily to ease the plight of refugees in the former Zaire as well as that of Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries.
According to the UNHCR office in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now home to some 232,000 refugees from neighbouring states following a series of bloody ethnic and political conflicts in Central Africa.
Relations between the agency and Kinshasa soured in October last year when Congolese authorities ordered UNHCR and other relief organisations out of the eastern town of Goma, accusing them of involvement in the country's internal affairs.
In 1997, UNHCR launched a program of rehabilitating areas around the vast and now empty refugee camps in the east and assisted in providing food, medicines and shelter for the refugees scattered around the country.
The agency spent $20 million on these programs, but some projects around Goma were suspended after staff were expelled. Despite UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata's four-day visit to Congo in February, the agency is still awaiting the government's go-ahead before resuming its operations in Goma.
"Reaching the accord amounts to saying we've been able to address our differences. Now the thing is to know whether we'll be able to comply with the terms of the agreement," one UNHCR official said in private.
Kabila overthrew veteran dictator Mobutu Sese Seko at the climax of a military campaign in May 1997.
The Congolese government has often accused the UNHCR of having nurtured the Interahamwe Hutu militia and soldiers of the defeated Rwandan army responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda who fought Kabila alongside the late Mobutu's forces.
In April, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring Burundi and Uganda agreed to try to eradicate persistent insecurity along their common border and ensure voluntary repatriation of their respective refugees.
Kakudji on Tuesday said Congo would sign similar agreements with all its nine neighbours to ensure lasting peace in Central Africa.
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