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Thousands Flee Fighting in Congo's Katanga Province


U.N. aid workers say Wednesday fighting between the army and militiamen in the southern Congolese province of Katanga has forced around 25,000 civilians to flee.

Three weeks after government soldiers launched an offensive against Congolese militiamen known as the Mai Mai, the humanitarian consequences for the population of Katanga are becoming clear.

The United Nations says about 25,000 civilians have fled their homes and are seeking assistance in a remote corner of the Congo where there are few aid workers and hardly any peacekeepers.

The new wave of displacement adds to the estimated 70,000 people already on the run from violence carried out by the Mai Mai, who were armed by the Kinshasa government to fight against Rwandan-backed rebels during Congo's war.

After the fight against the rebels ended, the Mai Mai turned their guns on civilians in the copper-rich province of Katanga. But the military has vowed to neutralize them and provide security ahead of elections, which are due mid-2006.

The few aid workers that are working in the remote province in southern Congo face serious challenges because of continuing insecurity, the lack of infrastructure in the bush, and the vast distances they have to cover.

And they do not benefit from the protection of U.N. peacekeepers as the U.N. mission is stretched thinly across the vast African country. There are only 100 peacekeepers in Katanga, an area the size of Afghanistan.

An aid worker in Katanga has expressed concern that the fighting and the lack of access for humanitarian organizations, plus cold weather brought on by rain, could lead to a "serious humanitarian crisis."

Congo is struggling to recover from a five-year war that has killed four-million people, mostly from hunger and disease.

Elections are due by the middle of next year, but what conditions will be like then are far from certain. Thousands of the fighters who fought in the war are still armed and continue to attack civilians.