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Refugees Return to Instability in Eastern Congo

  • Malcolm Webb

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says many of the 10,000 Congolese refugees, who fled to neighboring Uganda Tuesday, have returned to their homes. The exodus from villages in the North Kivu province of eastern Congo was triggered by brief clashes between locals and U.N. peacekeeping troops. UNHCR says the situation is now calm, but instability in the area still poses a threat to civilians. Malcolm Webb reports from Nairobi.

UNHCR says most of the refugees returned to their villages in the Rutshuru area of North Kivu Wednesday, and about 1,500, mostly women and children, still remain in Uganda. They fled to the border town of Bunagana, in Kisoro district of South-West Uganda, fearing violence after two incidents on Monday and Tuesday involving troops from the U.N. Peacekeeping Mission in Congo, know as MONUC.

UNHCR spokeswoman Millicent Mituli, speaking Nairobi, says the MONUC troops were attacked by villagers.

"A patrol was stoned by people in civilian clothes who had some form of arms, on Monday and again on Tuesday, another group of villagers attacked another patrol," Mituli said. "It would seem that the patrol was surrounded by villagers who seemed to be blocking their movement out of the village which forced MONUC to fire in the air. Those incidences may have raised some panic that got people to flee into Uganda."

Ugandan military spokesman, Lieutenant Tabaro Kiconco, told Reuters news agency that Congolese rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda and his men had organized an anti-U.N. demonstration and urged locals to riot.

Nkunda, formerly of the Congolese army, leads a rebel faction that includes many former army soldiers in the North-Kivu province. The Congolese government issued an international arrest warrant for him in 2005 for war crimes, and he is being investigated by the International Criminal Court.

Spokesman for MONUC Kemal Saiki says the threat from Nkunda's men is not significant. Speaking on the phone from Kinshasa he said people in the area were inclined to flee at the first sign of violence.

"They've been going through such harrowing experiences in the past they do not wait for fighting to break out, they just leave," Saiki said.

North and South Kivu provinces - an area larger than Rwanda and Burundi together - have suffered violent conflicts for the last ten years. Many cases of summary executions, torture, and rape have been documented by New York based organization Human Rights Watch. UNHCR says they expect clashes and resulting displacements to continue.