Recent Fighting in E. Congo Has Uprooted 100,000 People, U.N. Says

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 16, 2008

NAIROBI, Oct. 15 -- Renewed fighting between the Congolese army and forces loyal to a renegade general has displaced more than 100,000 people in the eastern part of Congo since August, according to U.N. officials, who described the situation as "catastrophic."

The fighting has mainly been in the hilly, forested eastern province of North Kivu, where Laurent Nkunda has over the years established a kind of fiefdom, flying the flag of his party, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, taking over villages, levying taxes and broadcasting his own radio programs.

Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi who maintains close ties to neighboring Rwanda, has said he is protecting the region's Tutsi minority from ethnic Hutu militias led by a core group that fled to eastern Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In recent weeks, Nkunda has expanded his ambitions, vowing to "liberate" the entire Central African nation of 65 million people as the government of President Joseph Kabila struggles to assert control.

Nkunda and Rwandan officials have accused the Congolese army of collaborating with the Hutu militias instead of disarming them, as Congolese and Rwandan diplomats agreed to do in an accord signed last year. The accusation, along with allegations by Congolese authorities that Rwandan soldiers had crossed into Congo to aid Nkunda, have raised concerns that Congo could once again slip into a wider war.

Eastern Congo has been the epicenter of two civil wars in the past decade, the first after the fall of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and a second that ultimately involved eight countries in a mad scramble for the region's vast mineral wealth.

The Great War of Africa, as the second conflict was called, ended in 2003, but fighting among militia groups has persisted, with more than 1 million people now displaced and living in camps or with families in far-flung villages across the east.

Some analysts estimate that more than 5 million people have died over the past 12 years, most as a result of hunger, disease and other deprivations caused by conflict.

Villagers across the east, preyed on by the militias, have become so desperate that they have begun to ambush U.N. and other trucks delivering aid.

"Just this morning, a crowd stopped several of our trucks, started to climb in and loot them," Patrick Lavand'homme, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in North Kivu, said Wednesday.

U.N. peacekeepers fired into the air to disperse the crowd, he said, and the trucks, which were headed to a government-controlled area, turned back.

About two dozen ambushes of U.N. trucks were reported last year; there have been about 65 such attacks by militias and villagers this year.

As a result of the ambushes and roadblocks, food and other aid -- blankets, cooking pots, tents -- is reaching only about half the displaced population, Lavand'homme said.

The fighting has imperiled a peace deal signed in January by 22 warring militia groups, including Nkunda's. That deal, brokered with U.S. diplomatic pressure, set up a process for demobilizing the militias or reintegrating them into the national army. Under a separate accord, the Congolese military was obligated to disarm the Hutu militias.

The rank and file among the militias include Rwandan Hutus who would have been small children during the genocide. Over the years, they have married local Congolese, become farmers and cattle herders and started other businesses in the east.

"They are relatively well integrated," said Roland Van de Geer, the European Union's envoy for the region, speaking from Kinshasa, the nation's capital. "So the Congolese army will have to fight, in a way, against its own people. And that will take some time."

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