/ 13 November 2008

UN blames rebels for flight of displaced in DRC

United Nations peacekeepers blamed rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on Wednesday for forcing thousands of displaced people to flee a refugee camp, while Kinshasa promised to punish soldiers on a looting rampage.

Several thousand civilians had sought refuge near a UN mission in DRC (Monuc) base at Kiwanja, about 80km north of Goma, to escape fighting last week between National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels and pro-government militias.

”Monuc has noticed since yesterday [Tuesday] evening that the vast majority of displaced who were sheltering around the base at Kiwanja have left their temporary camp,” said Monuc spokesperson Sylvie Van Der Wildenberg.

”We have strong fears that these people have been forced to go back [to their homes],” she said, adding that Monuc had reports ”indicating that the CNDP told them to leave the area”.

”If that’s the case, that would constitute a serious violation of international law,” she said.

The CNDP, led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, seized control of Kiwanja on November 5 and began a mopping-up operation to kill remaining Mai-Mai militia who they said had melted into the local population.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 50 civilians were killed, citing local sources who said the CNDP had sought out ”enemy collaborators”.

The DRC’s battle-scarred Nord-Kivu province has also been hit by undisciplined government troops accused of looting and violence against civilians.

The Kinshasa government on Wednesday promised to punish the soldiers who engaged in pillaging this week in villages in the Kanyabayonga region.

”Whoever committed acts of violence will be punished,” government spokesperson Lambert Mende said.

According to the UN, government soldiers on Monday and Tuesday took part ”in looting and acts of brutality against the civilian population in the Kanyabayonga area”, 175km north of Goma, the regional capital of Nord-Kivu, and three of the looters were killed.

Violence against civilians spread to the towns of Kaina and Kirumba further north, and only ceased on Tuesday after senior officers in the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) took measures to stop the soldiers.

Monuc military spokesperson Jean-Paul Dietrich on Wednesday confirmed that calm had returned to the area with UN reinforcements and said some Congolese soldiers had been detained.

”The looting ended yesterday [Tuesday] afternoon. The Congolese army arrested the looters and returned looted vehicles to their owners,” he said.

The three towns where the violence took place are strategically located in the north of Nord-Kivu province, where Nkunda’s rebels control much of the territory following an offensive in recent weeks.

Several villages along the road linking the three towns had been looted and women raped, Radio Okapi reported.

The UN said the violence began when government forces withdrew from frontline towns, and soldiers and their families were unhappy about the pull-out and also unsettled by rumours of a rebel attack.

Questioned on a possible rebel advance towards Kanyabayonga, Monuc’s Dietrich said that no troop movements had been reported in the area.

Several displaced persons’ camps have been emptied and razed in areas of Nord-Kivu province that have fallen under rebel control over the past two weeks, aid agencies reported. An estimated 50 000 people were reported to have fled three camps around Rutshuru, a few kilometres from Kiwanja. — Sapa-AFP