Some Congo civilians return, others flee rebels

Thu Apr 2, 2009 12:29pm EDT

Related Topics

* Refugees returning to North Kivu, but reprisals feared

* Congo plans to hunt rebels in South Kivu



By Joe Bavier

KINSHASA, April 2 (Reuters) - Some 300,000 people in eastern Congo have returned home due to a local rebellion dying out but at least 150,000 more have fled this year, mostly from Rwandan Hutu rebels, a United Nations aid agency said on Thursday.

Democratic Republic of Congo allowed thousands of Rwandan soldiers into its violence-ravaged North Kivu province in January to take on the Rwandan Hutu rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) based there.

The operation marked a major advance in relations between the two countries, former enemies during a 1998-2003 war, and was touted as a success by government authorities in both Kinshasa and Kigali when the Rwandan withdrew in late February.

The joint operations helped neutralise Congo's own North Kivu-based Tutsi rebels and the U.N.'s humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, said on Thursday that the resulting improvement in security has allowed 300,000 internal refugees to return.

"That is the good news," said Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the OCHA office in Congo.

But FDLR fighters, some of whom orchestrated Rwanda's 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed, have returned to many of their former positions since Rwanda withdrew its army, provoking renewed violence and displacement.

Rights groups say the returning FDLR, who accuse local villagers of having collaborated with their enemies, have launched reprisal killings and rapes against civilians.

"Since the beginning of January, we believe that there are at least 150,000 (displaced) and probably many more than that," Giuliano said, adding that most displacements had occurred as a result of civilians "escaping from FDLR activities".

OCHA said the displacement figures were merely estimates, due to difficulties in tracking fleeing villagers.

Fighting between foreign rebels, homegrown militias and government soldiers has carried on in eastern Congo despite the official end of the five-year conflict, displacing around 1 million people in North Kivu alone since late 2006.

Congo plans to extend the anti-FDLR operations to South Kivu, where the rebels earn most of their money from controlling mines and illegally taxing the population.

Aid workers fear this will lead to further displacements but the government said the U.N. statistics were exaggerated.

"Nothing justifies these fears. The operations in North Kivu did not provoke massive displacement," said Information Minister Lambert Mende.

"The operations reduced the number of displaced. These are lies to scare people and show the need for (aid agencies)." (Editing by David Lewis and Charles Dick)




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