Thursday, October 25, 2007

Welcome To The Congo

GOMA, DR Congo (AFP) - Fierce fighting broke out Saturday in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between local militias and rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda, forcing thousands to flee, the UN and the Congolese army said.

Very violent attacks" were reported early Saturday, army commander Colonel Delphin Kahimbi told AFP, adding that the fighting "is between Mai Mai from Kasereka (local militia) and Nkunda's insurgents".

He said the army was not involved in the fighting around Bunagana, a town around 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Goma, capital of DR Congo's Nord-Kivu province. The area has been under Nkunda's control for two months.

"Thousands of people are fleeing to Rutshuru (around 25 kilometres to the north west), terrified and completely destitute," Sylvie van den Wildenberg of the UN mission in DR Congo (MONUC) told AFP by phone from the town.

"We have seen three women who gave birth during their flight."

The arrivals said they had fled fighting between supporters of Nkunda, Mai Mai militia and the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), said Van den Wildenberg.

"The suffering of the civilians is unacceptable. We appeal to all the militias, all the armed groups, to immediately stop all fighting," she said, adding that MONUC peacekeepers had sent a patrol to Bunagana earlier Saturday.

A spokesman for Nkunda's forces claimed they had killed 18 FDLR rebels after being attacked.

"Our positions were attacked by FDLR troops, Mai Mai and FARDC (DR Congo forces)," Major Seraphin Mirindi told AFP.

But the FDLR, whose members are accused of having taken part in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in neighbouring Rwanda, denied being involved in any fighting with Nkunda's forces.

"No members of the FDLR have been killed in recent days. The FDLR is not involved in this fighting, neither on the side of the Mai Mai nor on the side of the Congolese army nor on anybody's side," FDLR official Callixte Mbarushimana told AFP by phone from Paris.

The eastern province of Nord-Kivu has been the site of rebellions that have plunged DR Congo into wars on two separate occasions, from 1996 to 1997 and from 1998 to 2003.

Since August, it has been the site of periodic clashes between the Congolese army and an estimated 5,000 troops loyal to Nkunda, a Tutsi former general who presents himself as a defender of local minorities against the army.

He has claimed that the Congolese army is backed both by the Mai Mai and the FDLR, which has some 6,000 fighters, according to UN estimates. The Congolese army has consistently denied fighting alongside the FDLR.

Kinshasa has sent 20,000 troops to Nord-Kivu and has repeatedly called on Nkunda to demobilise his troops.

Van den Wildenberg said the new clashes showed that "ethnic tensions are taking on serious dimensions in the region," where she said both the Nkunda and Mai Mai forces were accused of forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

Each new outbreak of violence increased the tensions between different communities, she said, noting that earlier this week Hutu and Tutsi children were fighting in the schools in Jomba, north of Bunagana.

Since the end of last year, violence in Nord-Kivu has prompted more than 370,000 people to flee, and the UN estimates that about 750,000 are displaced in total.