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UN Appeals For Safety Of Civilians In DR Congo

Top UN officials appeal for safety of civilians caught up in DR Congo fighting

31 October 2008 – Top United Nations officials today voiced deep concern over the plight of the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the deadly fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and appealed to all sides to ensure their safety.

As many as 250,000 Congolese have been uprooted from their homes since August as a result of the fighting between Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, in North Kivu province.

The UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, known as MONUC, has been working to protect civilians caught up in the deadly fighting in recent days, but has been stretched to the limit in its capacity to do so in the vast African nation.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it has received disturbing reports that several camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near the North Kivu town of Rutshuru, about 90 kilometres north of the provincial capital, Goma, have been forcibly emptied, looted and burned.

The agency is concerned over the fate of some 50,000 IDPs living in these camps. In addition, the area around Rutshuru, where UNHCR has an office, has been the scene of fighting in recent weeks and is now under rebel control.

High Commissioner António Guterres has again appealed to all sides in the conflict to respect humanitarian principles and to ensure the safety of civilians and those trying to help them.

“Hundreds of thousands of people who have already suffered far too much are in danger and in desperate need of help,” he said. “As humanitarians, our job is to get life-saving assistance to them as quickly as possible. We are trying to do this in an extremely volatile environment characterised by reported widespread human rights abuses and general lawlessness.

“While we will do everything we can to help the innocent victims, the solution has to be political and we appeal to all sides to bring this conflict to an end,” stated the High Commissioner.

UNHCR staff in Goma reported that the situation today is calm but tense. “Our office is open and our people are working, but security restrictions on movement remain tight,” the agency’s spokesperson, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva.

Since the latest round of fighting started in August more than 8,500 refugees crossed the border into Uganda – some 2,500 of them over the past three days. UNHCR reported that an additional 600 refugees arrived this morning. Some 1,200 have also fled to Rwanda.

There are 16 UNHCR-assisted sites in North Kivu sheltering some 100,000 people, plus more than 40 makeshift encampments housing tens of thousands of civilians. Altogether, there are more than one million IDPs in North Kivu.

“It’s clear that we are going to require more funding to cope with the new needs,” noted Mr. Redmond. “We need to rapidly distribute plastic tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, buckets, mosquito nets, kitchens sets and sanitary material and it appears we’ll have to set up new sites for displaced people as well as existing camps in North Kivu.”

Also today UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her concern over the increasing number of killings and other human rights violations recorded over the past few days in North Kivu.

“During previous outbreaks of fighting in this region, we have seen horrendous large-scale summary and arbitrary executions, rapes, disappearances, torture, harassment, unlawful arrest and arbitrary detention, not to mention wave after wave of mass displacement,” she said.

“Over the past days, a number of fresh violations have been recorded by UN human rights staff in the region,” she added.

In Goma the main perpetrators of looting, killings and rapes, appear to have been renegade FARDC soldiers, many of whom have fled the fighting. Other serious abuses, including targeted killings, have been reported from areas held by CNDP forces.

“The total number of civilians killed so far is not known, but this is clearly an extremely dangerous situation,” Ms. Pillay stressed. She called for “radical” reforms by the Government so that its security forces can play an appropriate role under the constitution and fully respect the human rights of its citizens.

“What happened in Goma should not have happened, as most violations were committed by looting soldiers belonging to the government forces,” she said. “I urge the Government to take swift and significant action to control their soldiers and protect the civilian population.”

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reported that, along with UNHCR and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), it delivered urgently-needed high energy biscuits for malnourished children to a medical centre in Kibati, 15 kilometres north of Goma, today.

Many thousands have fled to Kibati in recent days, living without shelter amidst heavy rains and lacking clean water and other basic necessities. WFP hopes to be able to begin distributing much-needed supplies to the area over the weekend.

ENDS

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