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UN Humanitarian Chief Seeks Congo-Rwanda Cooperation to Limit Civilian Casualties, Displacement

UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes continues a four-day visit to northeastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since Saturday, he has surveyed the impact of clashes between government forces and various rebel groups like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the National Congress in Defense of the People (CNDP), and the Uganda-based Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). More than 100 human rights groups and aid organizations are urging the UN humanitarian chief to insist that United Nations (MONUC) peacekeepers in the DRC be allowed to join Congolese and Rwandan forces on their mission to ensure that civilians receive adequate protection. Juliette Prodhan heads DRC operations for the British-based group OXFAM. She says that a joint offensive by Congolese and Rwandan government troops against FDLR Hutu forces has raised concerns about reprisal killings and has hampered NGOs' ability to provide help.

"Any time there's any type of operation by the military or the militia in DRC, there's always some kind of humanitarian fallout. And that's to do with the lack of discipline within the armed forces, a lot to do with practices that have become normalized, rapes, violence, looting. And so these are all things that the humanitarian community fears very much could result from a joint operation," she noted.

In North Kivu province, Mr. Holmes met with internally displaced families at the Kibati IDP camp near Goma, who had been endangered by fighting between CNDP rebels and the national army. In light of the high casualty figures resulting from that fighting, the Congo Advocacy Coalition of aid groups sent a public letter to Holmes last week, warning that the joint Congolese-Rwandan government offensive currently underway has caused thousands of people to flee their homes, compounding more than a million other victims internally dislocated from earlier combat. Prodhan points out that so far, despite coalition concerns about reprisal killings and the use of civilians as human shields, the latest offensive has distressed proportionally fewer victims.

"Now to date, the levels of violence and displacement are not all that severe as we might have feared. These operations are covering an area where the population is 850-thousand people. And the figures we have of those who have been affected so far, who have been displaced by the violence, range from about five thousand people to 15-thousand. So if you compare that from before December, 2008, the difference is marked and the humanitarian community obviously can't say that things are all right. But things are certainly better than we expected," she explained.

Sunday, the UN humanitarian chief had planned to visit a hospital west of Goma to meet civilians displaced by the Congolese-Rwandan offensive. But the helicopter trip to Masisi had to be scrubbed because of bad weather. Instead, Holmes surveyed a hospital in the provincial capital Goma, as well as a camp for Rwandans seeking voluntary repatriation. Then, he flew north to Bunia to assess conditions following the post-Christmas slaughter of close to one thousand DRC civilians by Ugandan LRA rebels. OXFAM's Prodhan says that there are lessons to be learned by Kinshasa and Kigali from December's offensive against the LRA, and the involvement by UN peacekeepers can play a central role in limiting the collateral damage.

"What you've seen in response to the petition made towards John Holmes, yesterday (Saturday), the Congolese and Rwandan governments both came out and said yes, they are particularly concerned about protecting civilians. But of course, with the joint Congolese-Ugandan operation, you've seen massive civilians fall out. And that's something we do not want to see happening again in that area or in any other area of the country. The Congolese and the Rwandans have spoken out and said that yes, they are responsible for the protection of civilians. So we hope they will show their good side, their true colors, in making sure that it does happen, does become a part of their mission in the coming days and that they allow the UN peacekeepers who are accompanying that for the purposes of protecting civilians to do their job," she urged.

To help MONUC do its job, Juliette Prodhan says governments should readily inform the international force of where they will be operating. Peacekeeping units can also be advantageously placed to serve as a buffer between rebels and potential civilian targets. In addition, Prodhan says peacekeepers should be allowed to share information about operations with civilian populations in order to prevent displacements. She says they can help relocating communities find protection and safe havens around UN peacekeepers' military bases, can serve as witnesses to rebels or government wrongdoing, and can make sure that violators are brought to justice.