Thousands of refugees poured out of camps in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) violent North Kivu province on Tuesday after the army said Tutsi-dominated insurgents attacked its positions nearby.
Army troops repelled the dawn raid on their positions near Mugunga camp, 10km from the provincial capital, Goma, killing 27 fighters loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, army officials said. Nkunda’s side denied attacking the camp.
Witnesses in the camp reported heavy gunfire and exploding mortars nearby at midday, as helicopter gunships from the DRC’s United Nations peacekeeping mission (Monuc) patrolled the area.
”There’s a massive movement of displaced towards Goma. It’s thousands of people. They’re packed onto the road, carrying whatever they can,” Aya Shneerson, director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Goma, told Reuters from a roadside near Goma.
UN agencies fear as many as 30 000 refugees have fled. More than 370 000 people have been displaced in North Kivu this year by fighting between government soldiers, Nkunda’s insurgents, Rwandan Hutu rebels and local Mai Mai militia.
”I saw the soldiers moving towards where the enemies had come. Three civilians were killed — a man, a woman, and a child. I saw them,” Prince Shamishungu said as he fled Mugunga. ”I don’t know how this violence will end. We are suffering.”
Humanitarian agencies stepped up efforts to ensure clean drinking water supplies, and stations have been set up to prevent families from being separated during the displacement.
”They will go to public buildings or relatives’ homes, but there’s a possibility many will have no place to sleep,” said Patrick Lavand’homme, the UN humanitarian chief in Goma.
”We hope that by tomorrow [Wednesday], depending on the security situation, most will have returned to the camps. We don’t think this will be a long-term displacement,” he said.
Nkunda has waged a campaign against government forces since August, when he abandoned a January peace deal and pulled thousands of his fighters out of special mixed army brigades.
”They did this to show that [the army] is not capable of protecting the people. That was their objective,” said General Vainqueur Mayala, the army’s top commander in North Kivu.
Tuesday’s fighting followed diplomatic pressure to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in North Kivu, which some fear could escalate to full-scale war. Both the UN and United States have sent high-level delegations to North Kivu this month.
The DRC and Rwanda agreed on Saturday to rid the eastern part of the country of the Hutu-dominated rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), whose presence is a cause of the current crisis.
Nkunda led around 4 000 troops into the bush in 2004, saying he was protecting the small Tutsi minority against the FDLR.
He says the DRC’s army backs the Rwandan rebels, who include Interahamwe militia responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed an estimated 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
”The government has a deal with the FDLR. They must renounce it and publicly declare them their enemies,” said Nkunda’s spokesperson, Major Seraphin Mirindi.
The DRC denies supporting the FDLR. Congolese army officers have in turn accused Rwanda of supporting Nkunda’s insurgency.
Rwanda has twice invaded the DRC in pursuit of the FDLR. A 1998 invasion helped spark a five-year war that killed an estimated four million people, mainly through hunger and disease. – Reuters