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Humanitarian Group Says Tens of Thousands Displaced by Violence in Eastern Congo

08 September 2007

Humanitarian aid groups are sounding the alarm as fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo forces tens of thousands of civilians from their homes in North Kivu Province. Noel King has more in this report from Kigali.

The Norwegian Refugee Council says heavy fighting between the Congolese army and rebel former General, Laurent Nkunda has caused many civilians to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The NRC and other aid groups have called upon the Congolese government and rebel factions to provide humanitarian access to civilians, and estimates that there are some 650,000 displaced in north Kivu province alone.

Simona Pari, a Protection and Advocacy Advisor with the NRC, spoke to VOA by phone from Goma.

"Since the beginning of the fighting one week ago, we are having tens of thousands of people who are fleeing their homes due to the increasingly tense conflict we are experience here in north Kivu," said Pari.

Eastern Congo is a region already shattered by decades of low-level clashes that boiled over into war from 1999-2003.

Rival rebel factions and rag-tag armed militias allied along ethic lines have fought for control of resource-rich eastern Congo for decades.

Nkunda, who is at the center of the recent violence, says he is trying to protect ethnic Tutsis in the region from the onslaught of ethnic Hutu militias.

These same militias include many of those responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu militias.

But while Nkunda says he wants peace, the fighting in eastern Congo has caused some 200,000 people in the region to flee their homes this year alone.

The Norwegian Refugee Council's Pari says aid groups are now concerned about a shortage of resources for the displaced, many of whom are refusing to return to their villages.

The humanitarian crisis threatens to affect neighboring countries, as refugees stream over the Congolese border into Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda.

In an interview with VOA, Rwanda's top envoy to the Great Lakes region, expressed concern about a spreading humanitarian crisis. Ambassador Richard Sezibera said Rwanda is concerned bout the destabilizing effect of a flood of refugees from Congo.

"It is of concern to us because of the possibility of large-scale population displacement," said Sezibera. "We are concerned that they might cross the border into Rwanda.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes was in north Kivu on Saturday and called for an end to violence there, following a visit with some of those who fled their homes this week.

On Friday, Nkunda claimed the Congolese army violated a U.N.-brokered ceasefire.

Simona Pari of the NRC says, despite the ceasefire, civilians in the region will likely remain frightened to return home for a long time.

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