60,000 refugees move off Congo frontline- - -
About 60,000 refugees are to be moved from the frontline of fighting between Democratic Republic of Congo rebels and government forces, the United Nations said on Friday amid a "volatile" standoff between the two sides.
Meanwhile there are fears the fierce fighting is threatening the sanctuary of the remaining mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park.
Renewed fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo between followers of renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and the army has displaced more than 250,000 people and left more than 100 civilian dead, according to UN and private aid agencies.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said 60,000 people in camps at Kibati, just north of the flashpoint Nord-Kivu provincial capital of Goma, would have to be moved.
"Given the continuing security threat, provincial authorities, UNHCR and its partners have decided to transfer the more than 60,000 people in the two Kibati camps as soon as possible, in a few days," said UNHCR spokesman in Geneva Ron Redmond.
Rebels and government forces are about 600 metres apart at Kibati and a UN peacekeeping force spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, said the force was negotiating "to reduce the tension and keep the belligerents separated as much as possible".
Nkunda's troops have surrounded Goma, the main city in eastern DR Congo with about 500,000 people, for the past two weeks.
The UN special envoy for the crisis, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, arrived on Friday in Kinshasa, where he was to meet DR Congo's President Joseph Kabila.
DR Congo foreign minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba held talks with ministers and officials in Rwanda on Friday on regional efforts to end the crisis. DR Congo accuses Rwanda of backing Nkunda, but the Kigali government strongly denies this.
Mwamba said after the talks: "Rwanda has an important role to play in the search for a solution to the crisis."
The World Food Program (WFP) said it had begun distributing food supplies for about 12,000 people in rebel-held areas north of Goma, the first operation of its kind since the end of October.
Congo's Virunga National Park has been the victim of a "real bloodbath" after fighting between government and rebel forces spread there, threatening the biodiversity of the UNESCO-listed site, Environment Minister Jose Endundo Bononge said.
"The war that has been imposed on us in the east (of the country) has been a real bloodbath for the environmental sector," Endundo said at a press conference in Kinshasa.
He lamented the "immense harm" caused not only to the park's biodiversity but also the country's tourist industry.
Fighting between the Congolese army and Laurent Nkunda's National Congress for the Defence of the People spread to Virunga, home to more than half the world's 700 remaining mountain gorillas, at the end of October.
Even before that, "In 2007 alone, we recorded the slaughter of 15 mountain gorillas and more than 20,000 antelopes," the minister said, adding that in the past decade the number of hippopotami had fallen from 30,000 to 1,000.
Endundo said Nkunda has placed his own men to protect the park, replacing wildlife officers from the Congolese National Park Authorities.
The rebels have occupied the south side of the park for the past three weeks, while thousands of displaced people have sought refuge there.
Thursday, November 13, 2008 (Reuters) report by Hereward Holland:
Aid workers to relocate Congo frontline refugees- - -
GOMA, Congo, Nov 13, 2008 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of refugees at a frontline camp in east Congo must be urgently moved to a safer place so they are not caught in crossfire between rebels and the army, aid officials said on Thursday.
More than 65,000 civilians who have fled weeks of fighting are camped at Kibati, just a few kilometres south of combat lines held by Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda and government troops who oppose them.
The refugees, squatting in cramped, dirty conditions within sight of a live volcano, are among 250,000 civilians forced from their homes since a resurgence of fighting in late August in Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern North Kivu province.
Recent frontline artillery and machine gun battles near Kibati have several times disrupted aid distribution to the refugees and sent thousands of them streaming south down the road towards the provincial capital Goma, 10 km (6 miles) away.
"We noticed that this area became the front line ... these (refugees) in Kibati cannot stay in that place," Ibrahima Coly, head of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in North Kivu, said.
"We noticed these people might be in serious danger and the humanitarian community decided we should move them from there ... as soon as possible," he told Reuters.
Relief agencies planned to truck civilians who agreed to go to a camp at Mugunga, 10 km (6 miles) west of Goma, he said.
The U.N. has its largest peacekeeping force in the world, 17,000-strong, in Congo but U.N. peacekeepers have been unable to protect hundreds of thousands of uprooted civilians in North Kivu from killings, lootings and rape. Human rights groups say both rebels and government troops have committed abuses.
"What I heard from (U.N. peacekeepers) is that ... they don't have the capacity to protect people (in Kibati)," one aid worker, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Nkunda, who wants President Joseph Kabila to agree to talks on Congo's future, last month pushed an offensive by his battle-hardened guerrillas to the gates of Goma, attracting a wave of international attention to the North Kivu conflict.
He suspended the offensive by declaring a ceasefire.
FEARS OF REBEL INFILTRATION
Aid officials say the fighting has created a "catastrophic" security and humanitarian situation, which risks repeating the kind of human devastation caused by a 1998-2003 war that killed several million and engulfed the former Belgian colony.
The aid worker who requested anonymity said their was also a risk Nkunda's fighters may mingle with the displaced civilians.
"If clashes happen, displaced (people) will be moving from the camp to Goma. This might facilitate the infiltration of armed people among the displaced running towards Goma," the worker added.
Humanitarian agencies are clamouring for urgent U.N. troop reinforcements for east Congo. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to approve 3,000 more.
"The major preoccupation for us is security," Marjon Kamara, head of UNHCR's Africa department, told Reuters in Senegal.
But U.N. officials say even if approved, troops could take two months to deploy. Eastern and southern African states have also offered peacekeepers, but under a U.N. or regional mandate.
At Kiwanja, near Rutshuru, 70 km (40 miles) north of Goma in the rebel-held zone, human rights groups accuse Nkunda's rebels and a rival pro-government militia of killing dozens of civilians, mostly adults, in tit-for-tat reprisals last week.
They say these took place despite U.N. troops being nearby.
Commanders of the U.N. force in Congo, known as MONUC, say their force, despite its size, is not enough to cover a country the size of Europe, with few roads and where marauding rebel and militia factions are preying on civilians on several fronts.
For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/
Additional reporting by David Lewis in Kinshasa, Writing by David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher; editing by Alistair Thomson.
Photo: Children attend the burial of eight-month old Alexandrine Kabitsebangumi, who died from cholera, in a banana grove at Kibati, north of Goma in eastern Congo, November 12, 2008. Packed into squalid refugee camps or roaming in the bush, hundreds of thousands of Congolese children face hunger, disease, sexual abuse or recruitment by marauding armed factions, according to aid workers. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly (DRC)
Photo: Raindrops cling to the fingertips of a dead Congolese government soldier lying on the road at the frontline near Kibati, north of Goma in eastern Congo, November 12, 2008. Two soldiers, both shot through the head, were killed in a sharp exchange of artillery, mortar, rocket and machine gun fire late on Tuesday a few kilometres from a refugee camp at Kibati sheltering 80,000 civilians displaced by violence. This is the tense frontline in the simmering war in Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, where Tutsi rebels and government troops face each other just 200 metres apart from positions in the verdant bush and fields. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly (DRC)
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