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With Congo’s army diverted to fighting a new rebel group in eastern Congo, militia groups have arisen and older ones are reasserting themselves, killing hundreds of defenceless civilians, the British charity Oxfam said Tuesday.
Underscoring the severity of the situation, UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos arrived in Goma on Tuesday and is to visit some of the 280,000 people who have fled their homes since mutinying soldiers launched the M23 rebellion in April. But security is so poor that Amos was forced to cancel planned trips to the mining town of Walikale and the seat of the rebellion in Rutshuru, 75 kilometres north of Goma.
As the 150,000-strong Congolese army and 20,000 U.N. peacekeepers have redeployed against M23 rebels in North Kivu province, fighting has spread to villages and towns, with the combatants often aiming to gain control of mines.
Responding to the escalating crisis in the mineral-rich area, regional leaders met in Uganda on Tuesday where they may seek a change in the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping mission. The option is one of three under consideration as presidents forming the 11-nation International Conference on the Great Lakes Region pursue a solution to the crisis.
The other options include incorporating a neutral force drawn from around Africa into the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, a position that appears to be favoured by the Congolese, or establishing a force pooled from regional armies, a more desirable situation for Uganda and Rwanda, according to officials monitoring deliberations.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in a statement read by an envoy at the summit in Kampala, said he was “deeply concerned at the continuing reports of external support to the M23,” and called for an end to such support. “Military deterrence alone will not resolve the current crisis,” the statement said. “I strongly encourage continued and strengthened high-level dialogue at the bilateral and regional level, aimed at ending the conflict.”
A Congolese military intelligence official said the Congolese government is pushing for the option that merges U.N. peacekeepers with an international force made up of troops from Angola, Tanzania and South Africa. The official was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Oxfam called for regional leaders to put the protection of civilians at the top of their agenda.
“Hundreds of people have been killed in attacks against villages in South Kivu, houses burnt and people kidnapped according to local and U.N. reports,” said the Oxfam statement, which added that recruitment of child soldiers is widespread, as is forced labour.
The M23 rebels are allegedly led by renegade Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court. The M23 fighters launched their rebellion earlier this year after accusing the Congo’s government of failing to uphold their end of a March 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the army.
Congo suffered back-to-back civil wars that drew in the armies of a half dozen nations in a scramble for its vast mineral resources that killed as many as 5 million people. An internationally negotiated peace deal was signed in 2002 but the conflict never ended in eastern Congo.