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Refugees Stranded as DRC Fighting Heats Up - 2002-10-25

United Nations aid agencies say thousands of Sudanese refugees are caught up in fighting between rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. U.N. officials say many of the refugees were forced to flee their camps to avoid rebel attacks earlier this week.

Officials at the United Nations refugee agency say Congolese rebels have caused as many as 17,000 Sudanese refugees to leave their camps in eastern Congo.

Refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond says rebels of the Congolese Patriotic Union / Popular Rally moved into the Biringi refugee settlement in northeast Congo at the beginning of the week.

The area has been the scene of intense fighting between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups for several months. Mr. Redmond says the rebels, who are believed to be supporters of the Hema, occupied the refugee camp when their retreat from the area was blocked by Lendu fighters.

"This caused panic among the refugees, and also the local population, who fled into the bush," he said. "By yesterday, there were reports of fighting between the UPC and ethnic Lendu militias about 15 kilometers from Biringi. The majority of the refugees in the area are believed to be hiding in the bush."

United Nations aid agencies working in Eastern Congo say the situation is becoming increasingly confusing, especially in the area of Ituri, close to Congo's border with Uganda, and Uvira, in Congo's South Kivu province.

Wivina Belmonte, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children's fund, says her agency is particularly concerned that the rebels in Congo are recruiting children as soldiers.

"Conservative estimates say that there are about 10,000 to 15,000 child soldiers in the DRC," Ms. Belmonte said. "We believe that that is a low estimate and this is the case on all sides. So, part of the work we are doing is on advocacy to release child soldiers."

Ms. Belmonte says the children's agency is trying to get food, water and shelter to tens of thousands of people in Congo, most of them women and children. She says the aid needs to get there quickly, because people are at risk of cholera and malnutrition.