As fighting between Congolese Government forces and troops loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda intensifies in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations peacekeeping mission there has urged all illegal fighters to lay down their arms.
The mission made its call in a statement released following the start of a major offensive launched by the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) against the dissident troops in the Mushake area, 40 kilometres northwest of Goma in eastern DRC.
The mission, known as MONUC, called on “all illegal combatants to lay down their weapons and join, without delay and without condition, the process of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration and, for the foreigners, of repatriation, while stressing that dispositions to this effect are in place and ready for their reception.”
On 2 December, the rebels attacked Government positions in Nyanzale, an area further north in the province. FARDC troops, supported by their own heavy weapons and attack helicopters, continue to engage in violent fighting in the region, supported by MONUC in accordance with its mandate.
Stressing its determination to protect civilians, particularly internally displaced persons (IDPs), MONUC said it would “not allow rural areas with high concentrations of population or North Kivu large urban centers, to fall in the hands of the dissidents.”
The mission voiced its determination to prevent any illegal armed group, particularly the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), from occupying the zones from which dissident forces have been evicted. It will also work to facilitate the return of displaced persons to their homes.
The peacekeeping operation has a mandate from the Security Council which invoked Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, allowing for the use of force. MONUC said it stands “ready to respond favorably to request for fire-support that could be expressed, as a last resort, by the FARDC.”
At the same time, MONUC pointed out that all belligerents have an obligation to respect the rules of international humanitarian law and human rights as well as to maintain unrestricted access for the provision of humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilians.
The clashes have driven hundreds of people to a makeshift camp for IDPs in Goma, the UN refugee agency reported today.
All sites for IDPs in the Goma area “are about to reach capacity,” said Andrej Mahecic, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. “We fear renewed fighting will bring more suffering in an already desperate humanitarian situation. With sharpening inter-ethnic divides and a continuous build-up of military forces, UNHCR is deeply concerned about the risks of severe human rights abuses and violence against civilians.”
The displaced people arriving at Lac Vert camp were fleeing heavy fighting yesterday between rebels, renegade troops and Government forces near Sake, 30 kilometres northwest of Goma, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“According to the new arrivals, at least another 1,000 people were on the road heading towards the same site,” said Mr. Mahecic. “The situation is subject to rapid change depending on the fighting.”
The makeshift site at Lac Vert, which was overpopulated with extremely poor living conditions, is under rehabilitation by UNHCR and its non-governmental organization (NGO) partners following the transfer of more than 7,000 IDPs to UNHCR-managed Buhimba and Bulengo camps.
The agency is transferring the newly arrived to other camps because the environment at Lac Vert is not suitable for habitation and needs refurbishment. “With all the agencies, international NGOs and Government officials we are relocating the new arrivals to sites where the environment is appropriate,” said Germaine Bationo, leader of the UNHCR emergency response team in Goma.
Marcelin Hepie, UNHCR's deputy representative in Goma, added: “All the four sites in the Goma area are about to reach maximum capacity. With the intensification of fighting on different fronts, we need sites to host new arrivals in desperate need of security. But what we need is for the guns to fall silent. What we need most is peace.”
Since December 2006, conflict and military build up in North Kivu have led to a massive population displacement – one of the worst since the end of the civil war in 2003. Some 405,000 Congolese have been forced from their homes in the province in the past 12 months, including 170,000 since August. In total, there are some 800,000 IDPs in the province, UNHCR said.
The fighting which broke out Sunday hampered the agency's efforts to move some 2,500 IDPs from public buildings in the centre of Rutshuru, north of Goma, to a newly developed site at Dumez, just outside the town. “After transferring just 295 IDPs, our staff had to be withdrawn and the operation was suspended,” the spokesman said.