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UNHCR Sees Military Build-up in Eastern Congo

07 October 2007

The United Nations refugee agency says there are worrying signs that fighting could erupt again among government forces, renegade troops and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

UN refugee agency spokesman Andrej Matecic says the warring factions in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province appear to be taking advantage of a lull in the fighting to build up their forces and military supplies.

He says a renewal of violence could worsen the humanitarian crisis in the province.

"We fear that the new clashes will just lead to new thousands of displaced and will push the province into even worse humanitarian disaster. It is already extremely difficult with 370-thousand IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] in the province since December 2006," said Matecic.

Matecic says there are reports that child soldiers are being recruited by armed men across North Kivu and this is creating a major problem of protection.

The United Nations reports gross and systematic violations of human rights are widespread throughout the province. It says villages are attacked, looted and pillaged. People are tortured and killed. It says tens of thousands of women are savagely raped and no one is prosecuted for crimes.

Matecic says these abuses have led to the worst displacement situation over the past three years. He says the total number of internally displaced in the Mugunga area, west of Goma, has now surpassed 80,000.

The UNHCR spokesman says that because so many people are fleeing the violence, existing camps are filling up fast and cannot accept new arrivals.

"We have sent an emergency team which arrived this week to Goma and to the area. And our team is preparing a new nearby site, which is called Buhimba. It is an area of about 28 acres [11 hectares] with a capacity to receive another 10,000 persons," he said. "We plan also to relocate there and to other camps where there is room, the people who are in the makeshift sites around Lac Vert and Ndosho."

Matecic says conditions at the makeshift sites are dire and getting worse as more fleeing Congolese arrive. He says the overcrowded and squalid conditions are causing tensions to rise among the displaced.

He says tensions were so bad a few days ago, that aid workers could not visit these sites because they feared for their safety.

Violent clashes erupted last month in North Kivu between government troops and the rebel forces loyal to Tutsi leader and former army general Laurent Nkunda.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect the Tutsi minority against attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels in the area. The Congolese government has struggled to regain control of the eastern part of the country since the end of a five-year civil war in 2003.

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