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Thousands of Congo Refugees Fleeing to Burundi - 2003-01-07

The United Nations Refugee Agency says more than 8,500 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo have fled into neighboring Burundi over the past 12 days, and more are trying to escape.

The UNHCR said the refugees are fleeing the latest fighting between the Mai-Mai militia and the RCD-Goma rebel group.

New arrivals tell aid workers in Burundi that the rebels are allowing only people with travel documents to leave south Kivu through established checkpoints. The refugees said the majority of people do not have any papers and are forced to resort to drastic measures to escape the volatile area.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said the result is added danger for the refugees. "There are a lot of people who are displaced within the area, unable to cross. Apparently, people who want to cross have to go to the border river at four in the morning, or before four in the morning and basically try and cross the river, which is swelling with new water because of the rainy season. It is a very risky venture. But, they have to try and cross before the checkpoint people arrive which is apparently at four in the morning," he said.

Burundi already is sheltering more than 12,000 Congolese refugees, who fled an earlier outbreak of fighting in October. The UNHCR spokesman said his agency is continuing to transfer refugees from temporary border sites in Burundi to safer inland camps. He said more than 6,500 who fled in October are still waiting to be relocated. The spokesman added that the agency had planned to close the border sites, but is now delaying the closure because of the latest influx of refugees from south Kivu.

The U.N. Refugee Agency said the latest flood of Congolese refugees began on December 26 when the fighting started in rural areas of south Kivu. Officials say it has now spread to the strategic town of Uvira on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.