While the situation in troubled north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remains tense - with sporadic fighting reported in around the town of Bunia - a senior United Nations humanitarian official said today the only way to quell the violence is to send a multinational force to the region to pressure rival factions to reopen peace talks.
According to a UN spokesman in New York, fighting between the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Front (FRPI) was reported in the general area of Kindia, a southern part of Ituri, with casualties on both sides. Wide-scale looting is also continuing in some localities.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council was mulling the possibility of dispatching a multinational emergency force to help stabilize the volatile situation. "During closed consultations this morning, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Affairs, Hédi Annabi, updated the Security Council on the latest situation in the DRC," spokesman Fred Eckhard said. He added that Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the consultations, during which a draft resolution on the deployment of such a force was circulated.
In the meantime, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno has concluded meetings in Kampala, Kigali and Pretoria, and returned to the DRC capital of Kinshasa today, Mr. Eckhard noted.
During a press conference at UN Headquarters, Carolyn McAskie, UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, stressed that to solve the crisis in the DRC, it was necessary to deploy a multinational force to Bunia and pressure Uganda, Rwanda and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma) into coming to the negotiating table.
Having just returned from a weeklong visit to the area to assess humanitarian efforts on the ground, Ms. McAskie said that despite Ituri's volatility, "Bunia looks like a ghost town." Currently, between 15,000 and 20,000 people were sheltering themselves in the compound of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC). Although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had been "courageous" and the UN had been able to take care of many basic needs, people were "crowded, miserable, and huddled under plastic sheeting," she said.
"MONUC's battalion of 700, charged with maintaining security, is not large enough," she said, telling reporters that inter-ethnic animosity was running high. She described hearing gunfire 100 meters behind her at times and said she had seen women and children whose limbs had been amputated. The lack of security was preventing UN agencies and NGOs from carrying out their duties.
Asked about claims of genocide in the area, Ms. McAskie said she could not offer figures on the total number of deaths since nobody knew what the situation was like outside of Bunia. Initial reports of thousands of people being massacred had been exaggerated. The figure was actually closer to 400.
She added, however, that leaders were attempting to gain power by stirring up ethnic hatred, and men, women, and children were responding by attacking each other brutally. In that context, although the actual figures did not add up to genocide, the conflict, like that which had taken place in Rwanda, definitely had a genocidal nature.
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