DR Congo

DR Congo: UN agencies stepping up relief efforts amid reports of fresh fighting

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United Nations agencies are stepping up their efforts to assist hundreds of thousands of people displaced by violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), amid reports that fighting has resumed in rebel-held territory in North Kivu while the ceasefire seems to be holding in the provincial capital of Goma.

According to the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, fighting continues intermittently between PARECO, an ethnic militia, and rebels led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda in the village of Kiwanja, some two kilometres outside Rutshuru, in rebel-held territory.

MONUC peacekeepers at a nearby base appear to be trapped in the crossfire, but have yet to report any casualties among their ranks, although there is concern that the intensity of the gunfire may have caused some damage.

The mission said it has temporarily suspended a humanitarian assessment mission in the area and gathered aid workers in a safe house to wait out the gun battle.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire between Congolese armed forces (known as FARDC) and the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) seems to be holding in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

UN peacekeepers are boosting their presence there, with two additional companies arriving today and a Formed Police Unit (FPU) expected tomorrow. The 17,000-strong MONUC - which has been mandated by the Security Council to protect civilians - has been overstretched in recent weeks.

The mission currently has 5,000 peacekeepers in North Kivu, including some 1,700 in Goma, which has a swelling population of between 700,000 and 1 million.

Ambassador Jorge Urbina of Costa Rica, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council for November, told reporters today that the 15-member body will discuss boosting the UN's largest peacekeeping force later this month, while adding that there is "no consensus" on the issue at this point.

Meanwhile, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy and the Secretary-General's Special Representative for the DRC, Alan Doss, are continuing their visit to North Kivu, where today they visited camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and UN military bases in the region, before meeting with humanitarian workers.

They also met with Congolese Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito, as well as European Union and United States representatives.

Yesterday Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo to serve as his Special Envoy on the issue and to work with leaders in the region and the broader international community to end the crisis, which has forced an estimated 250,000 people to flee their homes in recent months. Mr. Ban also said he would travel to the region to push forward peace efforts.

Up to 100,000 people - around 60 per cent of whom are children - have fled their homes in the last week alone, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), which noted that this brings the total number of IDPs in North Kivu to around one million or 20 per cent of the entire population of the province.

The condition of newly displaced children and women is "desperate," the agency said in a news release, with thousands having had very little to eat since they fled their homes and minimal access to clean water and health care. Hundreds of children are also presumed to have been separated from their families and forced to fend on their own.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that increasing quantities of medical supplies are being provided by foreign governments for the crisis, but more support is needed to meet urgent health needs.

The World Food Programme (WFP), for its part, said it will soon start distributing a 10-day ration to more than 135,000 people in six camps around Goma. The agency is moving more food from Uganda and Zambia into the DRC to meet growing demands.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is trying to determine the whereabouts of tens of thousands of IDPs from three camps near Rutshuru that were destroyed and emptied last week. Refugees from the DRC are also continuing to cross over into neighbouring Uganda, UNHCR reported.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said a mobile UN human rights team was allowed into the area controlled by CNDP forces yesterday for the first time since the crisis began.

While this was a welcome development, the Office noted that the team was accompanied by an armed member of the CNDP, which severely compromised their ability to conduct interviews and to gain information. The team, which is looking into reports of targeted killings in the rebel-held areas, plans to try again today.

In a related development, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo, expressed concern about the situation in the Kivus and recalled that his office is closely monitoring information about attacks against civilian populations, forced displacement of populations, murders, rapes, pillaging and looting, reported to be taking place amid the recent fighting.