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Aid Agencies Seek Temporary Halt to Congo Military Offensive

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Calling the human costs of a government military offensive in eastern Congo unacceptable, a coalition of 84 aid groups has urged the United Nations to suspend its support for the DRC army if civilians’ lives and property cannot be safeguarded.

The aid grouping, known as the Congo Advocacy Coalition, says that disarming the expatriate Rwandan Hutu FDLR militia (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) should remain a top priority for the Kinshasa government and U.N. MONUC peacekeepers (Mission of the United Nations Organization in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but that they must first take measures to improve protection of civilians.

From Kinshasa, DRC country director Marcel Stoessel of the Britain-based charity OXFAM voiced regret about the disastrous toll the U.N. – backed operation has taken on civilians since it was launched last January, with U.N. participation following in March. But Stoessel advises that it would be a mistake for the U.N. to dismantle its 20,000-strong contingent in the DRC, which is world body’s largest intervention force ever.

“We definitely do not hope that there are calls for the UN peacekeeping force to withdraw from Congo. That would absolutely be the wrong step. The UN force MONUC is absolutely needed today in eastern Congo, first and foremost for the protection of the civilian population,” he said.

Diplomats and UN officials of the Great Lakes Contact Group are due to meet in Washington Wednesday to discuss the eastern Congo violence. Rather than promoting a U.N. pullout, the Congo Advocacy Coalition is urging Great Lakes participants to bring a temporary halt to the Congolese military operation, known as Kimia II, until the Kinshasa government can ensure accountability for serious human rights abuses and take a more comprehensive approach toward disarming the FDLR militia.

OXFAM’s Marcel Stoessel says a new approach is needed that gives priority to helping the interests of civilians, who have suffered the most from the long-running conflict.

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“Unfortunately, the civilians – the women and the children – have once again borne the brunt of the conflict that has flared up again here in eastern Congo. Thousands of houses have been burned down. About a thousand civilians have been killed. According to U.N. figures, about 900,000 people have fled their homes. Rapes are reported at about 7,000 this year alone. These are all unacceptable costs of what is now purely a military approach to tackling the FDLR, and we would suggest to suspend to have a more comprehensive approach,” he said.

Satellite imagery collected by American scientific researchers has confirmed the widespread destruction of homes and villages. And although more than 1,000 of the 6-7,000 FDLR fighters have turned in their arms and have been repatriated to Rwanda, Stoessel says it remains impossible for UN refugee officials to help displaced Congolese war victims return back to their homes and villages.

“The return of these 900,000 is not on the agenda so far. People are really caught in a vicious cycle of violence where all of them are under suspicion by either the FDLR or the government forces or some of the other militias that are seen roaming around eastern Congo. And people live in fear some of their houses will burn down. They may have been raped or abused on the road, and often they were also looted. The little goods they could take with them were taken away from them where they arrived. And also where the displaced people settle now, they don’t really feel safe. As long as these offensive operations continue, the return of these people is simply not on the agenda,” he said.

The Congo Advocacy Coalition says the offensive has trapped civilians in the crossfire of rebels looking to increase their numbers and obtain more military hardware. It is the civilians who pay the price with widespread abuse, recruitment by militia, offers of collaboration with rebel forces, and countless hours living in fear of being attacked.