By Joe Bavier
KIBATI, Congo, Feb 7 (Reuters) - A top U.N. aid official said on Saturday the situation in Congo’s war-torn east was beginning to change but the thousands of displaced should not expect "miracles" from the United Nations.
U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes visited the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, a day after long-time foes Congo and Rwanda confirmed an arrested rebel leader would be returned to Kinshasa.
Last month’s arrest of Laurent Nkunda, who led a five year rebellion and Congo had accused Rwanda of backing, marked a dramatic improvement in relations.
The countries are now jointly hunting Rwandan Hutu rebels that have been at the heart of 15 years of violence and two wars between the Great Lakes nations.
"I have just arrived but it seems to be the situation is beginning to change ... There are new possibilities that are beginning," Holmes told refugees in Kibati, a camp for some 18,000 civilians just 10 km (6 miles) north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, which has seen most of the violence.
"As soon as peace comes back I think that the first thing to do is to help you go home. We are going to try. I am not promising miracles," he told the refugees living in a collection of banana-leaf huts perched on volcanic rock.
But there are fears of further violence in a region where aid groups say some 1.2 million civilians have been displaced in previous waves of fighting and the United Nations has been repeatedly accused of failing to protect civilians.
Violence has continued in the mineral-rich east despite 2006 U.N.-backed elections, which were meant to usher in peace.
"We urge you to insist to the parties to the conflict ... that the protection of civilians during military operations be a top priority," a collection of 100 local and international aid and human rights groups said in a public letter to Holmes.
The United Nations has called on both armies to allow its peacekeepers to be involved in the planning of operations. But it has also said it would not take part in operations that involved Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel who is both an operational commander and wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
The groups said lessons must also be learned from a separate joint operation between Congo and Uganda to the north. Meant to wipe out Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, the operation has resulted in more than 900 civilian killed in reprisals by rebels.
"THEY HURT US IN THE PAST"
There has been intense speculation over Nkunda’s fate since his arrest but Congo and Rwanda confirmed late on Friday that he would be sent to Congo once arrangements had been made.
The countries’ foreign ministers also said that the joint operations, which have seen a handful of rebels killed but most melt into the thick bush, were going well.
But the involvement of Rwanda’s army, which has previously hunted the Hutu rebels in Congo but was frequently accused of plunder and rights abuses, remains controversial for many.
Gaspard Fatakanwa, a 51-year-old living in Kibati, said some people felt the situation had improved and were going home but he would not, so long as Rwanda’s army remained.
"We are waiting for there to be security so that we can go home ... We are afraid of these operations," he told Reuters.
"They (the Rwandans) have hurt us in the past. They have killed people. They slaughtered them. The fist condition is that these soldiers go home to Rwanda," he added. (Additional reporting by John Kanyunyu in Goma, Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams)