U.N. aid agencies Friday expressed concern over increasing civilian deaths as attacks by armed groups against local communities and sites for internally displaced people escalate in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.N. refugee agency says the suffering caused by the attacks on civilians and internally displaced people must no longer be ignored.
This month in Ituri Province alone, it says simultaneous attacks by armed groups have left 11 dead and 250 homes looted and burned. The devastation comes on top of more than 800 deaths recorded by U.N. agencies in Ituri between February and June.
UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh says people lost their lives during firearm or machete attacks on their communities.
“At least 715 of these victims had been sheltering in internal displacement sites or were killed as they returned home having previously fled violence," Saltmarsh said. "In June alone, 97 returning or displaced people were killed in attacks that included abductions, looting, and burning of homes.”
Saltmarsh says more than 20,700 people have been driven from their homes by such raids, fueling food insecurity. He says decades of local clashes have halted development in this fertile region.
In recent weeks, he says fighting between the Congolese Army and the M23 rebel group in North Kivu Province has displaced more than 160,000 people. He says instability has been rife in the region for many years, but it has gotten worse because of many factors.
“There is the tussle over the mineral resources. There is a lack of judicial structures," Saltmarsh said. "There is a lack of infrastructure and, most recently of course, we have noticed an increase in the activities of these armed groups, particularly M23. Not just them, there are an estimated 120 armed groups active in that region.”
The March 23 Movement, or M23, is composed mainly of Tutsis, an ethnic group from Rwanda. The Congolese government has blamed M23 attacks in eastern DRC on Rwanda and has accused the government of President Paul Kagame of supporting the rebel group, charges he denies.
The UNHCR is calling on all armed groups to immediately stop the violence. It also is urging the outside world to focus more attention on the region and work with the government and countries in the region to pursue an effective and lasting peace process.