Congo violence forces over 22,000 to flee to Uganda

GENEVA (Reuters) - Over 22,000 people fled Congo to Uganda last week following a surge of ethnic violence in the northeast, raising the total number of arrivals to about 34,000 since the start of the year, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.

At least 30 people have been killed in fighting between Hema herders and Lendu farmers in the province of Ituri this month, echoing clashes that killed thousands of Hema and Lendu during a civil war that ended in 2003.

“We have seen in the last weeks that on average around 3,000 people are fleeing [Ituri] per day,” said UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch during a press briefing in Geneva, adding that thousands remained stranded on the Congolese shores of Lake Albert, which marks the border with Uganda.

The UNHCR reported that the refugees are crossing Africa’s seventh largest lake in canoes and overcrowded fishing boats, a journey that can take up to 10 hours. Four refugees drowned on Sunday after the canoe on which they had been stranded for two days capsized.

Over 120,000 Congolese fled to neighboring countries last year after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate in December 2016. His decision sparked a wave of unrest, raising fears that the mineral-rich Central African country was slipping back into civil war.

The United Nations earlier this week said things could get worse, estimating that an offensive launched by Congolese troops against Ugandan militants last month might displace up to 370,000 people.

Ugandan authorities were not available for comment.

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Reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Edward McAllister, Larry King