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Congo Civilians Flee to Islands to Avoid Attacks


Thousands of civilians in Congo's Katanga province have fled to floating islands to escape fighting. They are among 120,000 people who have fled violence in the north of the province, where government forces are fighting local militias, and the stretched U.N. peacekeeping mission has little presence.

As aid workers arrive in greater numbers in Congo's Katanga province, where a silent war rumbles on despite official peace, the scale of the humanitarian crisis there is becoming clear.

The number of displaced civilians in and around Mitwaba, an area 400 kilometers north of the copper producing town of Lubumbashi, has swelled to more than 120,000.

The head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Congo said this week that thousands of those who fled their homes had taken refuge on floating islands in a lake to avoid the violence.

Congo's army has been fighting local militias that were armed by Kinshasa to fight against Rwandan-backed rebels during the war, but have since spiraled out of control. But government soldiers are seldom paid, and poorly fed, and as a result, the United Nations says both sides are preying on the civilian population.

The United Nations says aid workers have treated hundreds of women who have been raped, but the exact numbers of cases is unknown, because many do not come forward.

Although Congo is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, the 17,000 troops are stretched thinly across the vast country, and their presence is limited in Katanga.

Congo's last war killed nearly four million people and the humanitarian crisis has been described as the worst since the Second World War. But problems in other parts of the country have left just a handful of aid workers for Katanga.

While violence simmers in Katanga and elsewhere in the mineral-rich east, the former Belgian colony is due to hold elections by the end of June.