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Red Cross Volunteers Killed in Congo - 2003-05-16

The International Red Cross reports two local volunteers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were killed this week during fighting for the town Bunia. The two volunteers were part of a massive effort to provide aid to people in the area, including thousands who have fled their homes.

The International Red Cross says it is deeply shocked by the deaths of the two volunteers. It says both were wearing signs that clearly identified them as Red Cross workers.

It notes this is the second time Red Cross personnel have been killed in eastern Congo. Two years ago, six employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross were murdered.

The Swiss-based humanitarian organization is appealing to all warring parties to respect the Red Cross emblem as required under international law.

In the meantime, U.N. agencies are airlifting essential humanitarian aid to Bunia in response to the crisis.

The U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF, has sent in medicine, high protein biscuits and tens of thousands of liters of clean water. UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara says clean, safe drinking water is absolutely essential to avoid an outbreak of disease. "We fear that there might be an epidemic," he said. "But, so far we have only one case of suspected cholera. So, this has to be tested. Of course, all the ingredients are there for the spread of epidemics. But, if the water supply is established today, then that should be a first major step to making sure the water is safe, of course. In the meantime, we cannot afford to sit back and hope for the best. That is why we brought in these oral rehydration salts which are essential for people with diarrhea, especially young children."

Fighting between the rival Hema and Lendu tribes in Bunia broke out May 7 after Uganda withdrew 6,000 troops from the area. The United Nations estimates hundreds of people have been killed, many of them civilians. Thousands more have fled for their lives to neighboring Uganda.

U.N. Refugee spokesman Kris Janowski says his agency has sent a team to the border region of southwestern Uganda to assess the situation.

He says the 10-member team visited four sites over the past two days. He says they found large numbers of refugees camping in fishing villages by the shores of Lake Albert. "The people said they fled clashes between the ethnic communities," said Kris Janowski. "Some of the people actually followed out a Ugandan force that was sent into that area, feeling safer this way. We do not know exactly how many people fled the area. But, it seems that the official estimates of tens of thousands of people were a little overstated. It seems that there are fewer people there and that people are still looking around."

Mr. Janowski says sanitary conditions in the area are very bad. He says people are sleeping in the open or under makeshift canopies. He says the Ugandan villagers told aid workers they are overwhelmed by the influx of refugees and need help.