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Chorus of concern as country teeters on brink of war

KINSHASA, 20 Dec 2004 (IRIN) - With fresh battle fronts opening up and tens of thousands of civilians fleeing their homes, there has been mounting concern among international bodies that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is heading for a major war.

"Unless the violence stops immediately, this massive displacement will have disastrous consequences for civilians," Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief coordinator, said in a special announcement made on Sunday in New York. "It is too dangerous to deliver aid to them at this point.

"The populations of entire villages - tens of thousands of people - have fled their homes," according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which Egeland heads.

OCHA said the new displacement was in addition to some 30,000 people who fled their homes last week in Kanyabayonga, a town in the eastern province of North Kivu.

Using helicopter reconnaissance flights, a joint mission from OCHA - the German Agro Action and the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office - assessed the situation in villages in North Kivu, from Kanyabayonga to Lubero, and found that now 80 percent of them were empty.

"Few displaced people were seen on the main road," OCHA said. "Witnesses report that the population has taken to the forest, fearing attacks in the area."

Fighting intensified in North Kivu last week between troops of the Congolese army arriving from the capital, Kinshasa, and troops in the 8th Military Region who are believed to have been members of the former rebel movement, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) based in the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma.

RCD-Goma has had close ties to the Rwandan government and the Congolese government has accused Rwandan troops of having invaded to fight alongside RCD-Goma fighters.

Earlier this month, the president of the UN Security Council, Abdallah Baali of Algeria, "expressed very deep concern" over multiple reports of military operations by the Rwandan army in eastern DRC.

At the same time, he urged the Congolese government to do more to disarm the thousands of Rwandan Hutu rebels based in the east who were responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. They are a "source of instability, a threat to civilian populations and an impediment to good-neighbourly relations," Baali said.

In November, Rwandan President Paul Kagame threatened to invade eastern Congo to forcibly disarm the Hutu rebels. However, he has since denied having carried out the threat.

State-controlled Radio Rwanda reported on Sunday that Kagame was now "leaving the issue to the international community to get a solution - without Rwanda having to cross into Congo".

Meanwhile, according to news reports on Sunday, two Burundian army helicopters had crossed into eastern Congo last week to attack the base of the Burundian Hutu rebel group, the Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) led by Agathon Rwasa, the only rebel group that is still fighting the transitional government of Burundi.

On Friday, the International Crisis Group issued a statement saying a programme by the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, to voluntarily disarm Hutu groups in eastern DRC "has failed".

"Forcible disarmament is called for - But the Congo's own army is too weak. MONUC is unwilling and in its present configuration perhaps incapable as well."

"Creative thinking is needed," ICG said.

"Fighting in the past few days for control of Kanyabayonga - between reinforcements sent by the government and the North Kivu-based segment of the army made up of former Rwanda-backed rebels - and the resulting flight of civilians underscore the dangers of ethnic polarisation and inter-communal violence," ICG said.

"Congolese of Rwandan origin and particularly Tutsis fear a repeat of past pogroms by government soldiers sent from Kinshasa to quell local rebellions," it added.

At the least, ICG said, the growing instability "threatens the Congo's fragile political transition. At worst, it could cause the Great Lakes region to go up in flames again.

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