The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is unable to access victims of fighting in North Kivu, a province in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Swiss-based humanitarian organization says many people are desperately trying to flee the conflict, which appears to be concentrated in parts of Rutshuru and Masisi territories. Lisa Schlein reports from ICRC headquarters in Geneva.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it is very concerned about the fate of possibly thousands of civilians caught up in what it calls some of the worst violence it has seen in North Kivu in years.
Violent clashes broke out December 1 between government troops and forces loyal to renegade leader, Laurent Nkunda. Over the past year, more than 400,000 people have been displaced by sporadic fighting between the Congolese army and Nkunda's men, as well as Rwandan Hutu rebels and local Mai Mai militia.
ICRC spokeswoman Anna Schaaf tells VOA the current round of fighting has triggered another mass exodus of civilians. She says most are fleeing to safer areas in southern Kivu.
"We are trying our best and we are reaching quite some people who have been able to flee and who are now outside of the areas where the fighting is going on," said Schaaf.
"But we are very much concerned because we do believe that there are still civilians trapped by the fighting currently. And it is the priority for the ICRC to be able to get access to those and to make sure that they are protected and that they are not caught up in the fighting," she added.
Schaaf says the Red Cross is particularly worried about the situation of women in the area.
"Whenever there is fighting, women are in a particularly vulnerable situation and they do need special protection especially against rape and all other forms of indecent assault as well as children," said Schaaf. "Children are entitled to special consideration and protection. And the main thing is that children can not be recruited into any armed forces or are not allowed to take part in the fighting according to international humanitarian law."
The International Committee of the Red Cross calls the widespread and systematic rape of women in North Kivu a weapon of war. It says rape is used to terrorize and intimidate the population.
Schaaf says when Red Cross delegates meet with representatives of the warring parties they remind them of their obligations under humanitarian law. These include sparing the lives and physical integrity of civilians, the wounded and people captured in the fighting.