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UNHCR Opens New Office In N. Kivu Amid Fighting

DR Congo: UN refugee agency opens new office in North Kivu amid fighting

The United Nations refugee agency has opened a new field office to help displaced Congolese in the volatile province of North Kivu amid a fresh outbreak of fighting in the area.

The clashes close to the centre of Rutshuru town forced thousands of people to flee their homes in search of safety and hampered plans by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to launch new camp management and coordination operations in the area.

The new office will oversee assistance and protection operations for the estimated 45,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Rutshuru area, the agency said. About half of them live in five camps while the rest stay in community buildings or with family and friends.

"It has been difficult to operate from Goma and provide regular assistance and protection to the IDPs in Rutshuru," Masako Yonekawa, head of the UNHCR office in the provincial capital Goma, which is located some 70 kilometres to the south of Rutshuru.

The agency warned that fighting Wednesday would delay the launch of a UNHCR operation to move some 2,000 displaced people from several schools and a local stadium to the a new site.

This group fled their villages in October to escape fighting between government forces and renegade troops. Many sleep in classrooms, which they must vacate in the morning when pupils arrive for their lessons. The planned transfer aims to "relieve IDPs from the stress of having to move out of their temporary shelters on a daily basis and normalize community life," the UNHCR official said.

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Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) North Kivu province in recent weeks. Many of the IDPs are living in precarious conditions without regular humanitarian assistance, including food, health care, clothing, potable water and shelter materials such as plastic sheeting and blankets.

Recent UNHCR assessment missions to Rutshuru have voiced concern over the proximity of IDP sites to military bases, which they say could expose females to the risk of sexual abuse.

Germaine Bationo, head of UNHCR's emergency team in North Kivu, said there were other obstacles to aid and protection operations, noting that some of the IDP sites are in rebel-controlled areas. "This will seriously restrict our movements and will require the use of military escorts from the UN peacekeeping mission," which is known as MONUC.

The build-up of military forces and repeated clashes in North Kivu since December 2006 have led to the worst internal displacement in the area since the end of the civil war in 2003, according to UNHCR. Some 375,000 Congolese have been forced to leave their homes in the province since last December, including more than 160,000 in the last two months alone. There are some 800,000 IDPs in the province.

The agency is urging all parties to refrain from attacks on internally displaced people and civilians, and to find a negotiated solution for the prolonged violence that continues to plague North Kivu and its population.


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