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Congo refugees suffer shooting, rape, looting: UN

world Updated: Nov 21, 2008 23:12 IST
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Shootings, looting and rape plague the already desperate lives of refugees in eastern Congo, where people caught between soldiers and rebels live in constant fear, UN officials said Friday.

Armed men shot and killed a 20-year-old woman at a refugee camp in Kibati, and forced families out of their huts before looting them, U.N. refugee agency spokesman William Spindler said. He would not say which group the men might belong to, but soldiers fighting to put down the long-running rebellion are known to live among civilians at Kibati, near the front line. "We fear that the civilian population, already in a dramatic and desperate humanitarian situation, could be caught in the crossfire should fighting resume in the area," Spindler told reporters in Geneva.

People live "in constant fear of looting, road blocks and forced labor," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said.

"The security situation is still tense and very volatile," she added. "The looting continues."

So do rapes, which have become endemic in Congo. Byrs said 20 rapes were reported at a health center in Goma, the eastern provincial capital, between Nov. 12 and Nov. 18, but probably many more went unreported.

The UN's peacekeeping force, numbering 17,000, has been unable to fulfill its primary mandate of protecting civilians in the region. The U.N. Security Council on Thursday approved sending 3,100 more soldiers and police to Congo.

But Congo and its small neighbor the Republic of Congo said 3,100 more is not enough, and France said the peacekeepers should be allowed to use force "in a proactive fashion."

"We believe that these 20,000 men will not be able to help ... (end) the disaster we are currently witnessing," Republic of Congo President Sassou Nguesso said in a joint statement after meeting with Congo's President Joseph Kabila.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said France was not alone in wanting to give the peacekeepers' more robust rules of engagement, which govern the circumstances in which they can use force.

"They are very restricted as to how they can use their weapons," Chevallier said

Now the peacekeepers can fire only when fired upon, and only to defend civilians when they are under imminent threat; they also cannot shoot at armed troops without warning them or firing warning shots, said U.N. mission spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai. U.N. military spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich on Friday welcomed the Security Council decision to send more troops and said he hoped the reinforcements "will come within the next few weeks." Countries have not yet decided who will contribute. Several African nations such as Senegal, Kenya and Angola could send extra troops, diplomats at the Security Council said, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks are still under way. Dietrich said they would be used as mobile forces to strengthen the peacekeepers who are spread thin in this vast nation the size of Western Europe.

Years of sporadic violence in eastern Congo intensified in August, when rebel leader Laurent Nkunda launched an offensive in which his fighters have taken control of large swaths of the east. The rebels have set up their own local administrations and collect taxes on goods moving through their territory.

Nkunda says he is protecting minority Tutsis from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is more interested in power and accuse his forces of committing multiple human rights abuses. Congo's army and other militias also are accused of abuses.

Some fear the current crisis could again draw in neighboring countries. Congo's devastating 1998-2002 war split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms and involved half a dozen African armies. On Thursday, rebels said they had fended off an attack from the army, pro-government Mai Mai militias and Rwandan Hutu rebels at a village near Kiwanja, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of Goma. The report of fighting came a day after rebels pulled hundreds of fighters back from several front-line positions as promised in what the U.N. said was a welcome step toward brokering peace. More than 250,000 people have been forced from their homes in the intensified battles.

At Kibati, the U.N. refugee agency has had to suspend plans to move about 67,000 refugees who have overrun the village just north of Goma in recent weeks, spokesman Spindler said. When fighting broke out there two weeks ago, the camp emptied in a matter of hours. People who have been on the run for weeks, trying to stay ahead of the fighting, scattered.

Spindler told reporters in Geneva that because of the violence they now hope to move 30,000 Kibati refugees to a safer camp, but have not fixed a date.

But the U.N. Children's Fund reported one positive development. Two schools that were filled with refugees have reopened at Kibati, just outside the eastern provincial capital of Goma. The agency said it was distributing material for 1,000 students there Friday. But some 85 percent of schools remain closed further north around the town of Rutshuru, it said.

Therapeutic milk to help hundreds of malnourished refugee children was being airlifted by U.N. helicopter on Friday to Kanyabayonga and Kayna, on the front line between government and rebel troops between Goma and Rutshuru.

"Thousands of people (are) hiding in the bush after fleeing Kayna; logistics and insecurity are preventing access; (there is a) very high risk of child deaths due to malnutrition, malaria, respiratory infections," UNICEF spokesman Jaya Murthy said.

Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.