November 11 2008
The head of the United Nations is requesting 3,000 more peacekeepers to help allay the conflict in Congo, calling it a “very serious and dire situation.”
Speaking at a news conference in New York Tuesday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the deteriorating situation in the east African nation demands more troops.
“I have requested, on an urgent basis to the Security Council, for additional resources and manpower,” he told reporters.
“I’m still concerned that even with a strong joint statement by the African leaders, we have 250,000 displaced persons.”
Thousands have been driven from their homes in eastern Congo since August, when fighting intensified between the Congolese army and rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda.
Nkunda, a former army general, has said he is fighting to liberate all of Congo from a corrupt government, and to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu militants who participated in the genocide before fleeing to Congo.
Although Nkunda declared a unilateral ceasefire on Oct. 29, recent clashes have undermined the fragile declaration.
Ban on Tuesday called for a new ceasefire agreement between government and rebel forces so aid workers could provide emergency assistance to “at least 100,000 refugees” cut off from basic necessities in rebel-held areas north of Goma, the provincial capital.
“This is a very serious and dire situation,” he said.
The UN Security Council was meeting Tuesday evening to consider Ban’s request to bolster the 17,000-strong UN force already on the ground in Congo.
The European Union has rejected the idea of sending its own force into the region, after France failed to win agreement from other nations Monday on a proposal to deploy a 1,500-member battle group alongside UN peacekeepers.
The announcement came amidst reports that Congolese soldiers were raping women and pillaging homes in and around the town of Kanyabayonga, about 100 kilometres north of Goma.
Soldiers involved in rampage
Between 700 and 800 soldiers were said to be involved in the rampage, which spread through several villages, UN peacekeeping spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said Tuesday, speaking by phone from the national capital Kinshasa.
About 75,000 have already fled the Goma area because of fighting.
“There is a big tension because there are so many people there and it’s so close to Goma,” Dietrich said, adding that the UN has begun investigating the violence with the Congolese army.
Meanwhile, aid workers were trying to gain access to the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, both 16 kilometres south of Kanyabayonga in rebel-held territory, where residents are believed to be without access to food.
Aid workers seeking to assist civilians trapped on rebel-held territory would be guaranteed safe passage, according to a rebel spokesman.
“If there are NGOs who want to come to Rutshuru, they are welcome to come,” said rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa.
In the Kibati refugee camp just outside of Goma, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the organization is scrambling to distribute necessities.
Cholera on the rise
“In the moment we are distributing foods, but from the next day we will try to start a new distribution for essential items like blankets, like tarpaulins, like soap and other things because it’s true people here are missing everything,” said Olga Miltcheva.
At least 90 cases of cholera have been recorded around Goma since Friday, according to relief officials. Seven more cases were diagnosed at a Kibati clinic Monday night.
The conflict in eastern Congo is fuelled by lingering tensions from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo’s civil wars from 1996-2002, which attracted neighbouring countries to Congo’s mineral riches.
Nkunda, who defected from Congo’s army in 2004, claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis.
He and his fighters are ready to lay down their arms, Nkunda has said, if the government agrees to disengage with “negative forces” from neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda and hold direct talks with Nkunda under the guidance of a neutral mediator.
The administration of Congolese President Joseph Kabila has indicated it is open to discussions with all rebel and militia groups in the region, of which there are several, but will not meet solely with Nkunda’s group.