New DRC fighting forces refugees to flee

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Tutsi rebels and government troops fought near a refugee camp in east DRC on Friday, forcing thousands of civilians to flee in panic.

Congolese and United Nations military officers said the two sides exchanged machine-gun, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire near Kibati in DRC’s North Kivu province, where 250 000 people have fled recent fighting.

Thousands of refugees streamed back along the road towards the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, 7km to the south.

The clash occurred as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met African leaders at a summit at Nairobi in Kenya on Friday to try to end the conflict in eastern DRC.

The fighting in North Kivu between Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and government troops backed by militia allies has raised fears of a repeat of a wider 1998 to 2003 war in the vast, mineral-rich former Belgian colony.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which runs the Kibati camp, said the fighting had interrupted the distribution of aid and caused panic among the camp population.

A spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping force in DRC (Monuc) said the shooting broke out when rebel fighters advanced from their positions and fired into the air, drawing return fire from Congolese army (FARDC) troops.

“The FARDC soldiers were provoked to such a point by the [rebels] that they started to shoot,” he said.

Witnesses said heavier firing broke out later, sending people running for cover and fleeing down the road.

No details of casualties were immediately available.

Civilians being killed
Witnesses saw a column of Congolese army troops heading north towards frontline positions occupied by Nkunda’s rebels, who had suspended an offensive on Goma last week.

A Uruguayan UN commander on the spot said the troops reinforcing the government lines were Angolans, but this could not be immediately confirmed elsewhere. Nkunda’s rebels have accused the Congolese government of using Angolan troops.

Angola has one of the largest armies in sub-Saharan Africa and intervened in DRC’s earlier 1998 to 2003 war. Its government is a staunch ally of Kabila but said on Friday it would not interfere directly so as to avert worsening the crisis.

“The direct and indirect interference by third parties will only worsen the conflict,” Angola’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The UNHCR said it was worried about the risk of innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire of fighting.

“We are again appealing to all sides in the conflict to respect the civilian character of the camps, to respect humanitarian principles and to ensure the safety of civilians and those trying to help them,” UNHCR chief spokesperson Ron Redmond said in Geneva.

United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Nkunda’s rebels and government-backed Mai-Mai militias of deliberately killing civilians in fighting this week at Kiwanja, north of Goma.

“UN peacekeepers in the eastern DRC are simply unable to protect civilians who are being deliberately attacked,” said HRW senior researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg. She called on the international community to reinforce the UN force.—Reuters

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