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Britain, EU Seek to Stave off Humanitarian Catastrophe in DRC

The foreign ministers of Britain and France are heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda to try to stave off a further humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo where tens of thousands are fleeing advancing rebel forces, despite a cease-fire that appears to be holding. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from London.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner are heading on a joint mission for talks in the DRC and Rwanda - with the aim of, as one British official put it, impressing upon both those governments the seriousness of the situation.

Their visit comes amid renewed fighting in eastern Congo between the Congolese army and ethnic Tutsi rebels, led by Laurent Nkunda. With a rebel advance on the eastern city of Goma, tens of thousands of civilians have fled the surrounding countryside into the city seeking safety, food and shelter.

Jaya Murthy is spokesman for the UN Children's Organization, Unicef. Speaking with VOA from Goma, Murthy described the humanitarian situation there as "terrible."

"Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes from intensified fighting over the past five days," he said. "We have 40 to 50,000 internally displaced people that are just outside of Goma and in Goma. These people are staying in small camps, also in churches, in schools and with host families in Goma."

Murthy says there are also reports of thousands of people fleeing in other areas of North Kivu province, where aid agencies have not been able to reach them.

He says there is growing concern about the physical and emotional state of those fleeing the conflict. "Often the people who have fled their homes, fled with very little if anything. They haven't eaten in days or eaten very little," said Murthy.

"They haven't had access to healthcare. Oftentimes children are separated from their families during displacement, which makes them more prone to abuse, exploitation and violence. We're very worried that there could be an outbreak of diseases or epidemics of cholera, which is very common here and measles. Also, when we have massive population displacement we see skyrocketing malnutrition rates," he added.

Rebel leader Nkunda says his forces are defending ethnic Tutsis in the area against Rwandan Hutu fighters, who fled to Congo after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Since that time, simmering ethnic tension, unrest and open warfare have broken out periodically.

Murthy says the cease-fire has afforded aid agencies a window of opportunity to distribute food and supplies, including high energy biscuits for children. But, he warns the situation remains very tenuous and he said the need for stability is crucial to get help to those in need.