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Thousands Flee Fighting in Congo

The U.N. refugee agency reported thousands of Congolese have been uprooted by the latest escalation of fighting in the South Kivu province of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The UNHCR said at least 35,000 people have fled from the latest skirmish between the government and the so-called Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR and their local militia allies.

The UNHCR reported well over one-half million civilians have been displaced in South Kivu since January 2009. That is when the Congolese government began its military campaign to forcefully disarm Hutu rebels and their local militia allies.

But, things have not worked out as the government envisioned. In fact, the situation has grown worse, as can be seen in the latest clashes, which erupted between government and rebel forces on July 12 in the Uvira territory of South Kivu.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, said many of the residents of Lemera and Mulente, two of the major towns in the region north of Uvira, reportedly have fled. And, he said, an estimated 19,000 people are believed to be hiding in the forests and villages near Lemara.

"There are widespread reports from the IDPs (internally displaced people) of atrocities including accusations or murder, rape, torture, on the part of FDLR [Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda] rebels," he said. "Fleeing populations also report arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, extortion and forced taxation by FDLR and various armed groups backing the Rwandan Hutu rebels," he explained.

Redmond said the majority of the internally displaced are seeking protection with host families in areas where it is still safe. He said others are sheltering in schools, churches and other public buildings.

This latest round of fighting has been going on in the Ruzizi River plain where the DRC borders neighboring Rwanda and Burundi. Redmond said most of the new IDPs are gathered along the Burundi border.

He said people need food, water, medical supplies and basic aid items such as blankets, mattresses and cooking utensils. He said access to the area is extremely difficult. However, the UNHCR managed to get a team into the area to register some 20,000 people.

"But, it is still a fairly insecure area and any sort of a large-scale relief operation would need to be very carefully planned and we would have to ensure that we had proper security to protect our staff and those delivering the assistance. That is being looked at now," he said.

Redmond said his agency fears the renewed fighting in South Kivu will have a negative impact on a voluntary repatriation operation of Congolese refugees from neighboring Tanzania. He said the majority of refugees are from this province.

The UNHCR estimates the total number of people displaced by violence and fighting in the eastern DRC now is over 1.8 million.