UN concern as thousands flee rebel advance in DR Congo

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 24 Nov 2012

11/24/2012 02:33 GMT

SAKE, DR Congo, Nov 24, 2012 (AFP) - The United Nations has expressed shock at the sight of thousands of civilians fleeing a rebel advance in the eastern DR Congo and appealed for access to help those caught up in the violence.

And in what would be a major first for its peacekeeping operations, the United Nations said Friday it was considering using drones to monitor the fighting between the military and the M23 rebels.

Regional leaders were heading for Kampala meanwhile for a summit Saturday on the latest crisis in the mineral-rich region.

The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday before taking the key town of Sake 20 kilometres (12 miles) to the west the next day, forcing thousands more people to take flight.

A UN source said the rebels appeared to have halted just south of Sake after battles with government forces and an allied local militia.

"I have been shocked by the pictures I have seen of the ordinary women, men and children fleeing the violence in and around Goma," UN deputy secretary for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos said in a statement.

The conflict was preventing aid workers from delivering even the most basic aid in already badly hit areas, she added.

Leila Zerrougui, the UN special representative for children and armed conflict, said children were among the innocent casualties in the recent fighting.

"Children have been killed and injured in the crossfire, deliberately targeted and allegedly recruited as soldiers," she said in a statement. Over the past four days alone, 16 children had been wounded, she said.

They also lived in fear of being forcibly recruited into a militia group -- or of being raped, she added.

The UN refugee agency warned that fighting had blocked access to all but one of the 31 camps for displaced people in North Kivu.

"There are bodies lining the road" leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, the head of the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told AFP, without giving specific figures.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had counted around 80 wounded in just two Goma hospitals on Wednesday and Thursday.

Red Cross officials expressed their fears for the fate of civilians outside Goma.

"The front line is shifting, and new communities are now directly affected by the conflict," said Frederic Boyer, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Goma.

In the capital Kinshasa, some 1,500 kilometres west of the troubled Kivu region, several thousand women including Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers marched Friday to protest at the violence.

UN figures show some 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 newly displaced between July and September.

DR Congo's army has proved unable to contain the rebellion since it erupted in April. This week, UN peacekeepers deployed attack helicopters in a vain attempt to halt the rebel advance.

UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the UN was considering using drones to monitor the fighting.

"Of course, we would do this carefully, in full cooperation with the government of the DR Congo," Dwyer told AFP.

Diplomats said peacekeeping chiefs had been in contact with the governments of DR Congo and of Rwanda about the move. But it is a precedent that other UN members might oppose.

The United Nations is also considering bringing in extra troops for the 17,500-strong MONUSCO peacekeeping mission. UN leader Ban Ki-moon is to recommend options to the Security Council soon.

France has been among those calling for MONUSCO's operational mandate to be toughened so it can take a harder line against the rebels.

But UN officials say the peacekeepers, who come from nearly 50 countries, must not replace a national army.

Among the leaders expected at Saturday's summit in Kampala are presidents Joseph Kabila of DR Congo, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, all key players in the unfolding conflict.

A report by UN experts has accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23 -- a charge both countries vehemently deny.

The UN experts say Rwanda has been reinforcing the M23 rebels' operations, supplying weapons and ammunition, intelligence and political advice.

The M23's de facto chain of command "culminates with the Rwandan Minister of Defence General James Kabarabe", the damning UN report adds.

"Senior government of Uganda officials" have also aided the rebels with "direct troop reinforcements", while Ugandan forces have helped the M23 to take over major DR Congo towns, according to the report.

M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero was in the Ugandan capital Friday at Museveni's request, the rebels said.

The M23 has refused to withdraw from Goma unless Kabila agrees to direct peace talks with the group.

The M23 was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.

Their escalating assault has raised fears of wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region, the cradle of two wars that ravaged the DR Congo from 1996 to 2002.

At stake is control of Kivu's mineral riches, which include cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key component of mobile phones.

Rwanda and Uganda played active or behind-the-scenes roles in much of the region's past warfare.

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