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UNHCR Alarmed at Number of Displaced in DRC

The U.N. refugee agency says it is concerned about the fate of tens of thousands of displaced people who fled an area in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where there has been heavy fighting between rebels and government troops. The UNHCR says aid workers visiting one area for the first time found several sites empty of their inhabitants.

The Rutshuru area of North Kivu has been out of bounds to aid workers for some time because of the fighting between the Congolese government and rebels.

But, the U.N. refugee agency says a period of relative calm in the area has made it possible for the UNHCR and other U.N. aid workers to visit Rutshuru this week.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, tells VOA, the team found a desolate scene with thousands of people in distress.

"Our team was able to assess the situation of some 5,000 internally displaced people who were sheltering around a U.N. base there. The civilians told UNHCR that they fear reprisals and cannot go back to their homes," said Redmond. "They allege numerous atrocities and summary killings and we found that they are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection."

Redmond says the U.N. report does not attribute these atrocities to any particular group. But, adds this area has been under the control of rebels loyal to renegade leader Laurent Nkunda over the past month.

Rutshuru lies some 80 kilometers north of Goma, the provincial capital of the volatile North Kivu province. Since fighting escalated in August, about one-quarter of a million people have been forced to flee their homes. In all, more than 800,000 people have been displaced in the region.

Redmond says the U.N. team, for the first time, was able to visit three former makeshift sites. As feared, he says the team found these sites were forcefully emptied and destroyed. He says this is in addition to three UNHCR-run camps, which several weeks ago also were emptied and destroyed.

"With the findings of this additional three camps now empty, we estimate that the number of internally displaced people formerly living in camps who are now unaccounted for is something more than 90,000 people," added Redmond. "We assume many of them have had to flee elsewhere for safety. Many people go to other villages. They go live with relatives or friends. But, it is quite worrisome because we do not really know where they are at."

Redmond notes tens of thousands of Congolese also fled to neighboring Uganda at the peak of the fighting last month.

He says aid workers were able to distribute emergency aid items to more than 10,000 needy people who had fled from the destroyed sites around Rutshuru. He says Congolese civilians around Tongo, east of Rutshuru, received 3,000 kits-including blankets sleeping mats and kitchen sets-enough for 15,000 people.