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UN fears humanitarian catastrophe in Congo


As fighting continues in Bunia, DR of Congo, UN fears humanitarian catastrophe

As heavy fighting continues to rage in the town of Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a top United Nations relief official today voiced fear of a looming humanitarian disaster in the area and warned of ethnic tensions that conjured up "shades of Rwanda in 1994."

The situation on the ground in Bunia continues to be "extremely difficult and volatile," with intense fighting going on between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in the town itself, as well as around the airport, according to a UN spokesman. The local headquarters of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is wedged in the area between the two groups.

Carolyn McAskie, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York that the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and the ethnic tensions in Bunia conjured up "shades of Rwanda in 1994," where men, women and children rose up and attacked their neighbours.

Whole villages in and around Bunia were slaughtering each other - a deeply disturbing aspect of the hostilities that Ms. McAskie feared was "Rwanda-like," although "nothing could match the scale of Rwanda." Still, there had been hundreds of casualties "that we know of" in the last few weeks or so, she added, stressing that the humanitarian situation was "extremely dangerous, even desperate; the focus was on very basic life-saving interventions."

The dire security situation - where a "rather nasty cocktail" of rebel groups and dissatisfaction with local authorities was playing on ethnic hatreds - meant that relief agencies were "down to the minimum in terms of providing the most basic human needs" such as plastic sheeting for shelter and high-protein biscuits.

Ms. McAskie noted there were just eight humanitarian personnel on the ground right now - including a surgeon, nutrition specialist, and water and sanitation expert -doing what they could. Despite the evacuations, she and others, including the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), were trying to keep a core group in place. Other teams and supplies were on standby, but needed a more secure environment in which to operate. Supplies were being moved up from Goma, but incoming flights tended to be sporadic. The first priority was to find a way to stop the fighting.

Asked how large a force would be needed to suppress the fighting, Ms. McAskie said Ugandan troops had been "keeping a lid on it". They had anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 troops. "We have 800 personnel now, and estimates of what was needed were some three times that," she said.

Joining Ms. McAskie at the briefing was Margaret Carey of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. She said that the new troops would have to be able to use force. The Mission was a peacekeeping operation and, therefore, lightly armed. It was basically comprised of guard units. What was needed now was the rapid deployment of well-equipped, well-trained troops, under a mandate that permitted the use of force. In terms of the total numbers needed, she thought the key was enforcement power and capacity.

Meanwhile, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said a shell landed in the UN Mission's compound, killing one person and wounding 13 others. "I can now confirm the reports on the wires yesterday that one woman was killed yesterday while inside the UN Mission's Bunia headquarters" he said, adding that a civilian was in fact killed by a stray bullet while she was in the compound, and one mortar shell also landed in the compound.

MONUC has also reported that two UN military observers have been missing since 11:00 a.m. local time Tuesday from Mongbwalu, five kilometres north of Bunia. "All attempts are being made to locate them," Mr. Eckhard said.

There has also been an increase in the number of internally displaced persons seeking shelter at the Mission's Bunia headquarters, and a makeshift medical clinic has been organized there to deal with the situation.

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