'Human catastrophe' grips Congo

09:46, 31 October 2008
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Killings and rapes have been reported in Goma

Fierce fighting between government and rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, the Red Cross says, according to BBC.

Diplomatic efforts are under way to end the crisis, which has threatened to spill over into neighbouring Rwanda.

A tense ceasefire is holding in the eastern city of Goma, where tens of thousands fled as rebels advanced.

But rebel leader Gen Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take the city unless UN peacekeepers guarantee the ceasefire.

Killings and rapes have been reported in Goma and aid has not been reaching the displaced.

Oxfam and other leading international aid agencies have suspended operations in the city, where a main hospital as well as numerous businesses and homes have been looted.

The Red Cross`s Michael Khambatta told the BBC the priority now was providing the vast numbers of civilians forced from their homes with food, medical aid, shelter and some sort of security.

Overstretched peacekeepers

After several days of fighting, Gen Nkunda declared the ceasefire on late on Wednesday, and his Tutsi forces are positioned some nine miles (15km) from Goma - the provincial capital of North Kivu.

He said he was opening a "humanitarian corridor" so aid could reach the thousands of people trapped between his forces and UN soldiers backing up government troops in the city.

Much of the looting has been blamed on retreating Congolese troops.

The UN is considering redeploying some of its 17,000-strong force in DR Congo - the world`s largest - to bolster around 5,000 peacekeepers in the city.

As the tense ceasefire held early on Friday, a multi-pronged diplomatic effort was under way to resolve the crisis.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent envoys to both DR Congo and Rwanda as each accused the other of launching cross-border incursions.

The African Union is to hold crisis talks on Friday and EU efforts have been ongoing to bring Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Congolese President Joseph Kabila together.

The EU is also to discuss sending troops to the area to aid the humanitarian effort.

Fleeing for the forests

Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer has held talks with Mr Kabila in DR Congo`s capital, Kinshasa.

Many in DR Congo say Rwanda supports Gen Nkunda`s forces - something Rwanda denies.

In the past two months, more than 200,000 people have been driven from their homes across eastern DR Congo.

While thousands have sought refuge in Goma, many thousands more have fled into the forests, where the militias cannot find them, and the aid agencies cannot help them.

Gen Nkunda has told the BBC his goal was to protect the Tutsi community from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in the country`s 1994 genocide.

Correspondents say a race for the area`s mineral wealth is fuelling the conflict as much as ethnic enmities.

There are growing concerns for the welfare of 39 wildlife rangers who were forced to flee into dense forest after their headquarters in eastern DR Congo were stormed by rebels.

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