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Many Congolese Flee to Southern Sudan

Thousands of people fleeing rebel attacks in the northeastern DRC are seeking safe haven in South Sudan. Members of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army of Uganda have been attacking towns and villages in Orientale Province, killing at least 900 people. Humanitarian agencies have been trying to determine the number and location of the displaced people in the province.

Andrej Mahecic, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, spoke from Geneva to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua.

"Following the attack on Saturday night on the town of Aba in Orientale Province…we now have witnessed the arrival of thousands of Congolese refugees into southern Sudan. And our team there says that some 5,000 Congolese refugees, who fled from Aba, have arrived in the town of Lasu, which is some 55 kilometers away from the border with the DRC," he says.

The refugees arrived in Lasu over the weekend and said more were on the way. Mahecic says, "They told UNHCR that some 90 percent of Aba's population, which amounts to about 100,000 people, has fled the town. The refugees have also told us that thousands more are on their way and could be expected to arrive in southern Sudan in the next few days," he says.

He says that UNHCR staffers drove the road from Lasu to Yei in south Sudan and spotted "at least three large concentrations of refugees."

"This was the first fact-finding mission just to establish the size of this new arrival," he says. Now, UNHCR and other agencies, NGOs and local authorities will begin planning an assistance operation for at least 5,000 people. However, some displaced may not cross the border into Sudan and may settle in another part of the DRC.

It's been difficult getting an exact number and location of those fleeing the LRA attacks. "The northeastern province of the DRC…Orientale, is about the size of France. It's more than half a million square kilometers…extremely remote with…very few roads. And we are experiencing great logistical difficulties in, first of all, moving around, let alone in reaching some of the areas," he says.

Agencies have been working with the displaced and local groups to try to get a better assessment of the situation there. "According to the latest estimate, then again it's only a rough estimate, since last September, some 150,000 people have been displaced by the LRA attacks. At the same time, we estimate that also at least 900 people, Congolese civilians, have been killed by the Ugandan rebel group over the past five months," Mahecic says.

The Congolese national army is moving to set up a security ring around the town of Dungu, which is a center for humanitarian operations. Dungu itself was attacked in December. The security ring, extending around 45 kilometers from the town, has encouraged some people to return to their towns and villages.