United Nations officials warned on Tuesday that fighting between rebels and army troops in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had displaced up to 500 000 people and left many in an ”appalling” situation.
The warning came as heavy fighting between forces loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda and the army continued in the Nord-Kivu region on Tuesday, the day after the rebels launched an ”active offensive” against army troops.
A spokesperson for the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the provincial capital of Goma told Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that it had recorded 371 000 people as internally displaced in the region since December 2006.
”But we have information of another 136 000 displaced people, which we have not yet confirmed because of the security situation, which would bring the total displaced up to half a million in nine months,” Louis Vigneault said.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the situation of the displaced people, many of them in camps north-west of Goma, was ”appalling”.
”In Mugunga, more than 80 000 people are packed into five makeshift camps. There are tensions between them, they are not being welcomed by local people and there are reports of rapes in the camps,” spokesperson Jens Hesemann said.
”These people are victims of pillaging and violence by different armed groups, both rebels and soldiers,” he said.
”They have witnessed the forced recruitment of children, arbitrary arrests and attacks on areas where they have gathered before entering the camps.”
The ongoing fighting made it hard for aid workers to reach many of the displaced people, the UNHCR said.
Nkunda, a Tutsi, is a powerful local warlord in the Masisi highlands, located west of Goma, and claims to protect local people against the army and hostile ethnic communities.
Heavy clashes occurred over the weekend and were expected to intensify after Nkunda announced a new offensive on Monday and rejected a ceasefire agreed with the army a month ago under pressure from the UN.
The UN mission in DRC confirmed fighting continued on Tuesday and said it had deployed an operational base in the area to protect civilians.
Speaking by telephone from the Masisi highlands, Nkunda accused the army — also known as FARDC — of razing the homes of local people.
”In the hills around the villages [where clashes are occurring], FARDC have burned about 30 houses,” he said, adding: ”We are resisting these attacks.”
Nkunda repeated his accusations that the army was fighting alongside extremist Rwandan Hutus based in eastern DRC, many of whom are alleged to have taken part in the Rwandan genocide of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.
The army command at Goma was unavailable for comment, but has previously denied the claims.
Meanwhile, local media group Journalists in Danger said on Tuesday that two Ugandan journalists had been detained in Nord-Kivu since October 3 for trying to make contact with Nkunda. — AFP