DR Congo

Aid workers to relocate DR Congo frontline refugees

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By Hereward Holland

GOMA, Congo, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of refugees at a frontline camp in east Congo must be urgently moved to a safer place so they are not caught in crossfire between rebels and the army, aid officials said on Thursday.

More than 65,000 civilians who have fled weeks of fighting are camped at Kibati, just a few kilometres south of combat lines held by Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and government troops who oppose them.

The refugees, squatting in cramped, dirty conditions within sight of a live volcano, are among 250,000 civilians forced from their homes since a resurgence of fighting in late August in Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province.

Recent frontline artillery and machine gun battles near Kibati have several times disrupted aid distribution to the refugees and sent thousands of them streaming south down the road towards the provincial capital Goma, 10 km (6 miles) away.

"We noticed that this area became the front line ... these (refugees) in Kibati cannot stay in that place," Ibrahima Coly, head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in North Kivu, said.

"We noticed these people might be in serious danger and the humanitarian community decided we should move them from there ... as soon as possible," he told Reuters.

Relief agencies planned to truck civilians who agreed to go to a camp at Mugunga, 10 km (6 miles) west of Goma, he said.

The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17,000-strong, in Congo but U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to protect hundreds of thousands of uprooted civilians in North Kivu from killings, lootings and rape. Human rights groups say both rebels and government troops have committed abuses.

"What I heard from (U.N. peacekeepers) is that ... they don't have the capacity to protect people (in Kibati)," one aid worker, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Nkunda, who wants President Joseph Kabila to agree to talks on Congo's future, last month pushed an offensive by his battle-hardened guerrillas to the gates of Goma, attracting a wave of international attention to the North Kivu conflict.

He suspended the offensive by declaring a ceasefire.

FEARS OF REBEL INFILTRATION

Aid officials say the fighting has created a "catastrophic" security and humanitarian situation, which risks repeating the kind of human devastation caused by a 1998-2003 war that killed several million and engulfed the former Belgian colony.

The aid worker who requested anonymity said their was also a risk Nkunda's fighters may mingle with the displaced civilians.

"If clashes happen, displaced (people) will be moving from the camp to Goma. This might facilitate the infiltration of armed people among the displaced running towards Goma," the worker added.

Humanitarian agencies are clamouring for urgent U.N. troop reinforcements for east Congo. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to approve 3,000 more.

"The major preoccupation for us is security," Marjon Kamara, head of UNHCR's Africa department, told Reuters in Senegal.

But U.N. officials say even if approved, troops could take two months to deploy. Eastern and southern African states have also offered peacekeepers, but under a U.N. or regional mandate.

At Kiwanja, near Rutshuru, 70 km (40 miles) north of Goma in the rebel-held zone, human rights groups accuse Nkunda's rebels and a rival pro-government militia of killing dozens of civilians, mostly adults, in tit-for-tat reprisals last week.

They say these took place despite U.N. troops being nearby.

Commanders of the U.N. force in Congo, known as MONUC, say their force, despite its size, is not enough to cover a country the size of Europe, with few roads and where marauding rebel and militia factions are preying on civilians on several fronts.

(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Kinshasa, Writing by David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Alistair Thomson)

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