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Aid Group Says Humanitarian Crisis Not Improving in Congo

The aid agency Oxfam is warning the scale of the humanitarian crisis in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is just as large as it was last year when fighting between the government and rebel forces briefly captured international attention.

Last year, about 250,000 people were displaced by clashes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between government forces and fighters from the National Congress for the Defense of the People, an ethnic Tutsi militia.

Since then, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda has been captured by Rwanda, the group signed a peace agreement with the government, and many of the displaced have returned home.

But since mid-January, when Congolese and Rwandan troops began an operation targeting another militia, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, another 250,000 have been newly displaced in the provinces of North and South Kivu.

Rwandan troops withdrew from the country at the end of February, but the Congolese army is continuing to pursue the FDLR, which was started by members of the Interahamwe, the Rwandan Hutu militia that carried out that country's 1994 genocide.

Oxfam press officer Rebecca Wynn said many of those displaced this year are in more remote areas, which are more difficult for aid groups to access than in previous rounds of displacement.

"The situation is as bad in terms of the number of people suffering. If you look at the relief, we are saying there has been improvement in some areas, such as Rutshuru. But what we are saying is that has come at the same time as the situation has gotten worse in other areas, like Lubero," she said.

She said that both the Congolese military and rebels have been implicated in looting villages and raping civilians.

Oxfam is also calling for the U.N. Security Council to speed up its promised reinforcement of 3,000 troops for the peacekeeping mission in the country. With 17,000 soldiers, the peacekeeping operation is already the largest in the world, but is spread thinly across the vast country's eastern provinces.

"The 3,000 peacekeeping troops need to be deployed. They were promised in November. We understand that Egypt and Bangladesh have pledged the troops, but as yet they are not on the ground, so they are not making a difference," she added.

The Security Council is set to discuss the situation in eastern Congo on Thursday.

Meanwhile, many more civilians have been displaced this year in provinces to the north.

In Haut Uélé, the Lord's Resistance Army, a Ugandan rebel group, has displaced nearly 200,000 people since December, in part out of retaliation for a Ugandan military offensive against the group. And in Ituri province, tens of thousands have been displaced by fighting involving still other militias in the past week.