DRC rebels pull back as malnutrition soars

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rebel fighters pulled back on Wednesday from two key battlefronts as aid workers warned of a massive increase in malnutrition among people displaced by the recent upsurge in violence.

A day after renegade general Laurent Nkunda’s camp said they would stage a partial withdrawal as a show of goodwill to a United Nations peace envoy, a spokesperson for a UN peacekeeping force confirmed Nkunda’s troops were on the move.

”The rebels are currently in the process of withdrawing from their positions,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, the spokesperson for the UN mission to the DRC, known as Monuc.

”It is a process that is still ongoing,” said Dietrich, adding that peacekeepers on patrol in the region had observed the redeployments.

The withdrawals were centred around two battlefronts about 80km north-east of the main eastern city of Goma, which have been the scene of some of the heaviest clashes of recent weeks.

Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) had announced its intention to withdraw from the zones in a statement on Tuesday, saying they wanted the UN peacekeepers to step in to the breach.

”The withdrawal began yesterday [Tuesday] and we have now withdrawn by 40km,” Nkunda’s spokesperson, Bertrand Bismimwa, confirmed on Wednesday.

”As far as I’m aware, Monuc is in the process of redeploying,” he added.

Dietrich added that representatives of Monuc, Nkunda’s force and the government troops were planning to meet ”to discuss practical issues related to the withdrawal and the demilitarisation of the area”.

In a weekend meeting with UN special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, Nkunda said he wanted to negotiate a ceasefire with the government.

The withdrawal is designed to ”give a new chance” to peace efforts launched by former Nigerian president Obasanjo, according to the CNDP.

However, Nkunda’s troops remain parked on the outskirts of Goma, the main city in Nord Kivu province and home to about 500 000 people.

The situation on the ground has become increasingly complicated in recent days with clashes breaking out on Monday in the town of Kirumba between government forces and a usually pro-government militia known as the Mai-Mai.

At least two Mai-Mai militiamen were killed in the violence and funerals were taking place on Wednesday, according to an Agence France-Presse correspondent in the town.

France has put forward a proposal at the UN Security Council to beef up the numbers of Monuc as the best way to stabilise the situation.

‘Situation is dire’
The violence in a country that was devastated by a five-year civil war at the turn of the decade has caused another round of suffering for the local population, with tens of thousands of people being displaced.

The United States-based World Vision charity said its staff operating a clinic in the rebel-held town of Rwanguba were now treating up to 10 malnourished children each day, having had to cope with an average of one or two before the conflict.

”The cause of malnutrition used to be poverty,” Suzanne Kahamba, a local nurse working at the World Vision clinic, said in a statement.

”But now so many people are displaced, they don’t have land to grow crops. The conflict has intensified the effects of poverty ten times over and the situation has become dire.”

The violence has also forced thousands of people to flee to neighbouring countries, with the UN’s refugee agency reporting that 2 000 refugees had crossed the border into Uganda on Tuesday alone.

”There was an influx of 2 000 people who crossed into Ishasha last evening,” said Roberta Russo, the UN refugee agency spokesperson in Uganda.

The Ishasha border crossing, located about 5km south of Lake Albert, borders territory that has recently seen clashes between Nkunda’s rebel forces and militias backed by the Congolese army.

Nkunda says he is defending local Tutsis against the Interahamwe, a Rwandan Hutu militia, some of whom have been implicated in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighbouring Rwanda.

He has threatened to topple Kabila’s government unless he is granted face-to-face negotiations with the president. — Sapa-AFP

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