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Inter Press Service

DRC: Aid Agencies Fear Humanitarian Disaster in North Kivu

Ulrich Knapp

UNITED NATIONS - The situation in
the strategic city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
(DRC) was relatively calm Thursday after a night of fierce shooting and
widespread looting, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) reported.

However, tens of thousands of
Congolese fleeing the latest fighting between government forces and
armed opposition groups is straining the already overburdened system of
camps for North Kivu province's estimated one million internally
displaced persons.

"The humanitarian situation at the moment is terrible," said
Jaya Murthy, the spokesperson for the U.N. children's agency UNICEF in
the eastern DRC. "We have about between 40,000 and 50 000 people that
are in a couple of small camps five kilometres outside of [the
provincial capital of] Goma."

UNHCR also reported that many Congolese were heading towards
Uganda looking for safety. Its team at the border said that on
Thursday, some 8,000 entered Uganda at the Busanza border crossing.

Most of them are staying with host families and in public
buildings, such as schools and churches. But around 2,000 of the
refugees have opted to be transferred to the Nakivale refugee
settlement further inside Uganda.

Most of the refugees in Uganda are dispersed over a large
area, and the first major challenge, besides water and sanitation, will
be the provision of food, as the area generally depends on local food
imports from the DRC, UNHCR says.

The World Food Programme (WFP) said that it was able to
distribute food to key nutritional centres and hospitals inside Goma on

Meanwhile, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes
has called on the government and all armed groups in the area to
protect civilians and to facilitate the work of humanitarian

"We all hope that Wednesday's ceasefire will quickly help to restore
minimum security conditions and allow humanitarian actors to work with
civilian authorities to assess needs and mount emergency operations to
address them," Holmes said. "Unconditional access, and respect for the
independence, impartiality and neutrality of humanitarians as they go
about their essential work have to be a top priority."

The Security Council, in a presidential statement on Wednesday night,
condemned the recent offensive of the Congrès national pour la défense
du peuple (CNDP) in the eastern DRC, and demanded its immediate end.

In the statement read by Security Council President,
Ambassador Zhang Yesui of China, the Council also welcomed the
announcement of a ceasefire by the group's leader, Laurent Nkunda.

The Council called on the U.N. mission in the country (MONUC) to take
robust actions to protect civilians at risk and to deter any attempt to
threaten the political process by any armed group.

Expressing concern at reports of heavy weapons fire across the
border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, the
Council also called on the authorities in both countries to take
concrete steps to defuse tensions and restore stability in the region,
and called on all regional governments to cease all support to armed

In regard to beefing up the MONUC force, the Council said it
would "expeditiously study" the request of the Secretariat in view of
developments on the ground.

Rights groups say it is clear that more U.N. peacekeeping troops must be quickly sent to the region.

"We're calling for the United Nations Security Council to take
immediate and urgent steps to make sure that reinforced and
provided with the military hardware in order to enable it to discharge
its mandate of protecting civilians in eastern DRC," Tawanda Hondora,
deputy director of Amnesty International's Africa programme, told Voice
of America news.

"There are countries obviously that provide both moral and
material support to some of these armed groups operating in eastern
DRC. They need to be leaned upon to stop these attacks. They're killing
civilians, women and children. And if not checked, we will see a
situation where neighbouring countries also begin to be destabilised."

The DRC government has accused Rwanda of supporting the CNDP,
while Rwanda accuses the DRC army of siding with the Rwandan Hutu armed
group, the FDLR.

"We cannot wait to see another situation develop in eastern
DRC, which is similar to the one witnessed between 1998 and 2002, where
more than three million people died. It has to be stopped," Hondora

The United Nations has less than 6,000 of its 17,000-strong
DRC peacekeeping mission in the east, because of unrest in other
provinces. In a video-link conference on Tuesday, Alan Doss, special
representative of the secretary-general in DRC, said the force was
badly overstretched and urgently needed reinforcement.

Earlier this month, Doss asked the Security Council for more
peacekeepers, air support and other equipment. The Council has not yet
responded to his request.

MONUC said on Wednesday rebels loyal to General Laurent Nkunda
had fired five rockets on a U.N. convoy assigned to protect civilians
on a road near Goma on Tuesday. The U.N. Mission emphasised that it
will continue to intervene to protect civilians and urban centres
across North Kivu.

DRC's 1998-2003 war and an ongoing humanitarian crisis have killed more
than five million people. With 17,000 troops deployed, MONUC is
currently the U.N.'s biggest mission.

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