Saturday, November 22, 2008

Congo refugees suffer shooting, rape, looting

KIBATI, Congo, Nov 22 — Looting soldiers tried to rape one woman and fatally shot another at a refugee camp, witnesses said yesterday, as the United Nations prepared to send more peacekeepers to help protect traumatised civilians in eastern Congo.

But Congo's president said the 3,100 additional troops proposed by the UN would not be enough to halt the unfolding disaster.

Some 67,000 people have overrun the village of Kibati, just north of the provincial capital of Goma. The UN refugee agency said yesterday it was postponing plans to move refugees from the area, which is near the front line between soldiers and rebels.

"We fear that the civilian population, already in a dramatic and desperate humanitarian situation, could be caught in the crossfire should fighting resume in the area," the refugee agency's spokesman, William Spindler, said in Geneva.

Shootings, looting and rape have plagued the already desperate lives of refugees.

Tumayini Kahumba, 20, was fatally shot in the village on Thursday night as she slept next to her mother and two siblings in a tent, uncle Jean-Dieu Bansi said.

"When the soldiers got here, they wanted to rape a woman. She screamed a lot and the people woke up to help her. They (soldiers) began to shoot in the air to try to spread the crowd. They were also looting," Bansi said.

One gunshot pierced the tent and hit Kahumba near the ear.

Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said 20 rapes were reported in a week at a health centre in Goma, the eastern provincial capital, but that probably many more go unreported.

Years of sporadic violence in eastern Congo intensified in August, when fighting heated up between the army and fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. More than 250,000 refugees have been forced from homes in eastern Congo in recent weeks.

Nkunda says he is protecting Tutsis from Hutus who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. But critics say he is more interested in power and accuse his forces of committing multiple human rights abuses. Congo's army and other militias also are accused of abuses.

Some fear the current crisis could once again draw in neighbouring countries. Congo's devastating 1998-2002 war split the vast nation into rival fiefdoms and involved half a dozen African armies.

A 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, spread thin across this vast nation the size of Western Europe, has been unable to protect civilians or stop the fighting.

The UN Security Council unanimously agreed on Thursday to send 3,100 more peacekeeping troops to Congo, but the presidents of Congo and neighbouring Republic of Congo said yesterday that would not be enough.

"We believe that these 20,000 men will not be able to help ... (end) the disaster we are currently witnessing," Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso said.

A UN military spokesman, Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich, said he hopes the new peacekeepers will arrive within weeks.

Several African nations such as Senegal, Kenya and Angola could send extra troops, diplomats at the Security Council said, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks are still under way.

Also yesterday, Congo's President Joseph Kabila hinted he may be ready to speak directly to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda — a rebel demand he has refused in the past.

"Dialogue is the best way to resolve the problem," he said. "Our government never refused to listen to any group — no matter who they are."

Kabila then flew to Angola and met with President Eduardo dos Santos, an ally who has promised to send troops if need be. But neither man would speak to reporters afterward.

Meanwhile, rangers who protect Congo's critically endangered mountain gorillas were allowed to return yesterday to the park, whose headquarters were seized by rebels Oct 26.

"It is a huge step that all sides have agreed that the protection of Virunga as a World Heritage Site and its mountain gorillas is of sufficient priority to transcend political differences," park director Emmanuel de Merode said.

Yesterday's agreement comes two days after rebel leaders pulled hundreds of fighters back from several frontline positions in what the UN said was a welcome step toward brokering peace. — AP

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