UN News Centre – 2009-01-20 21:47:32
(January 16, 2009) — The Ugandan rebel militia terrorizing villagers in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has killed over 500 people and forced some 115,000 to flee their homes since September, the United Nations refugee agency reported today, adding it was “shocked” by the state of survivors remaining in the area.
The attacks have prompted condemnation from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, which today voiced its grave concern at the scale of the atrocities and emphasized that those responsible must be brought to justice.
“The members of the Security Council demanded that the members of the LRA cease all attacks on civilians immediately, and urged them to surrender, assemble, and disarm,” Deputy Ambassador Jean-Pierre Lacroix of France, which holds the Council”s rotating presidency for January, said in a statement read out to the press after the 15-member body was briefed on the situation by UN humanitarian chief John Holmes.
On Wednesday, a joint UN team reached the difficult-to-access village of Duru in DRC”s Oriental Province, scene of successive attacks by the Lord”s Resistance Army (LRA) in recent months, and which was again targeted by the rebel group in the last week.
Staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who had to fly into Duru by helicopter, heard distressing accounts of atrocities committed by the Ugandan rebel group, who the survivors said had last raided the village on Monday and Tuesday, killing four people, injuring a 4-year-old girl and abducting a 9-year-old boy.
“A four-year old girl was wounded and as I speak right now, she still has a bullet in her right leg where she was shot. Her father died instantly and she was there lying beside the dead body of her father crying,” David Nthengwe, UNHCR”s spokesperson in eastern DRC, told UN Radio.
UNHCR staff said they were shocked by the physical condition of the villagers, many of them clad in rags, looking famished and weak after spending nights in the bush without blankets or shelter.
“They have no clothing. They have not eaten for many weeks. Many of them have been eating things from the bush to try and survive, and they are sleeping in the forest because of the fear of attacks,” said Mr. Nthengwe.
The LRA – notorious for human rights abuses including the killing and maiming of civilians and the abduction and recruitment of children as soldiers and sex slaves – has been fighting Ugandan forces since the 1980s and has spread its campaign of violence into Sudan and the DRC.
A series of accords struck by the Government of Uganda and the LRA last year raised hopes that they could reach a permanent, wide-ranging agreement ending the conflict, but each time LRA leader Joseph Kony was expected to emerge from the jungle and sign the deal mediated by the Government of Southern Sudan, he failed to appear.
Mr. Kony”s repeated refusal to sign the Final Peace Agreement is “deeply disappointing and worrying,” Mr. Holmes told the Security Council. However, “the door has not yet been finally closed,” he added, noting that the Secretary-General”s Special Envoy for the LRA-Affected Areas Joaquim Chissano will continue to push for a final signature to the peace accord.
The Governments of DRC, Uganda and Southern Sudan launched a joint military operation in mid-December to flush the LRA out of a remote national park in north-eastern DRC. The fleeing rebels are said to have committed grave human rights violations against civilians in the area.
The villagers in Duru told UNHCR that the rebels looted and torched their houses, forcing residents to flee into the forest. Some of them fled towards Dungu, some 90 kilometres south of Duru. Another 2,000 crossed into neighbouring Sudan.
According to UNHCR staff in Dungu, the death toll in DRC”s Oriental province – bordering Uganda and South Sudan – is now estimated at 567 people since the start of LRA attacks last September and the estimated number of 115,000 people forced from their homes is likely to rise.
The agency noted that those who remained in Duru were traumatized and in urgent need of assistance, adding, “They also told our team that they did not feel safe, fearing new assaults, rape and abductions.”
“The LRA, so we are told, is now planning to burn the bushes where these people are hiding so that they can smoke them out and attack them again. So this is why they are appealing for security immediately,” said Mr. Nthengwe, who also called for protection so that UN humanitarian agencies can reach the displaced people and survivors to supply survival basics, such as food, medicine and water.
Some UN agencies, including UNHCR, have managed to provide assistance to other parts of Dungu district, with 70 tons of food and supplies reaching the area on Tuesday.
The trucks, which left Goma, the capital of the eastern North Kivu province, 10 days ago, shipped maize, salt, cooking oil and peas from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) as well as blankets, sleeping mats, kitchen sets, jerry cans and soap from UNHCR.
“In the coming days and weeks, we are hoping to reach, in joint efforts with our partners, some 100,000 displaced persons in locations such as Duru, Faradje, Doruma, Watsa and Isiro, which have not received any assistance since last September,” said UNHCR.
In related news, the independent UN expert on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), Walter Kälin, is slated for a week-long visit to the DRC starting on Sunday to examine the situation on the ground in the war-torn eastern region of the African country.
Mr. Kälin, the Representative of the Secretary-General on the human rights of IDPs since 2004, will present his findings in March to the 10th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
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