UN Aid Convoy Crosses Congo Frontline

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The Guardian/UK

UN Aid Convoy Crosses Congo Frontline

EU ministers to discuss Oxfam call to send forces to the area as UN brings relief supplies to people displaced by the fighting

by
Julian Borger, Xan Rice in Nairobi, Matthew Weaver and agencies

The UN says 250,000 people have been displaced by fighting since August. (Photograph: Stephen Morrison/EPA)

A UN aid convoy crossed into a rebel-controlled area in eastern Congo today to provide relief supplies to tens of thousands of people displaced by fighting.

The 12-vehicle convoy crossed the frontline between government troops and rebels controlled by Laurent Nkunda, in the first mission of its kind since the violence started in August.

As it set off, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, refused to rule out sending British troops to the conflict to help UN peacekeepers.

"We
have not ruled anything out. It is possible," he told BBC Radio 4's
Today programme after two days of talks in the region. "It is right to
see this through the UN perspective."

He said the short-term
priority was to aid supplies from being plundered by rebel groups.
"Those rebel groups need to be engaged in a serious way in both
military terms, but also in political terms. That is the foundation of
progress in the DRC."

Both the Congolese army and Nkunda said
today's aid convoy would be given a safe passage, according to Gloria
Fernandez, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs in eastern Congo.

She said medical supplies
and tablets to purify water were the priority, and that the convoy was
not carrying food despite it being desperately needed.

Peter
Smerdon, of the World Food Programme, said: "We have sufficient food
stocks in Goma for an initial response to the displacement, but it's a
matter of getting it to the people in need."

Some 250,000 people
had been displaced since August. Fernandez said families had been
forced to move four or five times in the past 10 days. "They go around
in circles ... fleeing the movement of troops and the lines of combat."

The
aid convoy is bound for a hospital in the village of Rutshuru - the
only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of
people.

Miliband will join fellow EU
ministers for talks in the French port city of Marseilles today amid
calls from Oxfam for them to agree to send EU forces to the area.

"The
European Union is well placed to rapidly provide the additional troops
that the people of Congo desperately need," said Juliette Prodhan, the
head of Oxfam in Congo.

"Given the fragility of the ceasefire and
fears for another outbreak of intense fighting around Goma, more troops
must be deployed as soon as possible."

Last night, the outline of a desperately needed peace process was emerging after Britain and France warned the leaders of Congo and Rwanda that they could be held to account by the rest of the world if the violence continued.

Before
arriving in Tanzania, Miliband and his French counterpart, Bernard
Kouchner, delivered tough messages to the leaders of the two countries,
saying Europe would not stand by and watch another cycle of the
conflict that has its origins in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and that
has since claimed 5 million lives and created more than 1 million
refugees.

"Our message was that the world is watching," Miliband
said last night. "Everyone is haunted by the memories of the 1990s. All
sides have to live up to their stated responsibilities. It is vital we
maintain the ceasefire and get a humanitarian corridor open."

Another
British official expressed the message more bluntly: "They were warned:
'You need to call off the dogs. You will be held to account if bad
things happen.'"

The process will involve the Tanzanian
president, Jakaya Kikwete, the current head of the African Union,
hosting a delegation from Rwanda today and a Congolese government
delegation tomorrow. That would be followed in the next few days by
face-to-face peace talks in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, with AU and EU
participation.

Gordon Brown told reporters during a tour of Gulf states: "We must not allow Congo to become another Rwanda."

Miliband
said he would tell his fellow European ministers: "The situation is
very dangerous. The ceasefire is fragile. The humanitarian situation,
especially as you go north from Goma, could easily take a fast turn for
the worse, because the basics are not yet there for hundreds of
thousands of people."

The vigorous EU diplomatic push came after
10,000 rebels led by Nkunda, a Tutsi, went on the offensive in North
Kivu province, displacing tens of thousands of people who had been
repeatedly uprooted by earlier cycles of the conflict.

Nkunda,
who is thought to be supported by Rwanda, claims to be protecting
Tutsis from Hutu extremists, whose presence dates from the Rwandan
genocide, when they were driven into Congo accused of killing 800,000
Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

Yesterday, thousands of refugees
were on the move again after rebel pledges that they would be safe.
From dawn, the road out from Goma was lined with families trudging
north towards Kibumba, where many of them had been staying in a
displaced persons' camp until a few days ago.

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