KINSHASA, Nov 27 (Reuters) – Congolese Tutsi rebels took control of the eastern town of Ishasha on Congo’s border with Uganda, the U.N. said on Thursday, sending thousands of Congolese civilians streaming into Uganda.
Fresh fighting in east Congo has added urgency to calls for more international peacekeepers to be deployed immediately.
“There was fighting,” said Madnodje Mounoubai, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC). “They attacked, they took it,” he said, referring to rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda.
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said 13,000 refugees, 10,000 of them on Thursday alone, had crossed the border at and around Ishasha in 48 hours. Most had walked for several days to escape fighting and rebel attacks on their villages in the Rutshuru district of Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province.
“The rebels attacked my village. They killed all the women, even pregnant women,” said one 20-year-old refugee, Jean, in comments cited by UNHCR officials, who were seeking to transport the refugees to a safe settlement in Uganda far from the border.
“I’m exhausted. I just want to be safe,” Jean added.
Humanitarian agencies, struggling to help a quarter of a million civilians displaced by fighting since August in east Congo, are worried that a United Nations plan to send troop reinforcements may come too late to prevent more bloodshed.
The U.N. Security Council has approved an increase in the stretched peacekeeping force from 17,000 to just over 20,000 to try to definitively end fighting between Tutsi rebels and government forces and their militia allies.
But it could take months for the U.N. reinforcements to be mustered and to arrive. The Congolese government also wants Indian troops to be excluded because it considers them unreliable, diplomats in Kinshasa said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a statement calling for a concerted international push to establish peace in Congo and stop atrocities against those caught up in the fighting, especially women.
“Recent reports suggest an escalation of sexual violence in its most brutal forms, committed by all sides in the conflict, including soldiers belonging to the national army,” she said ahead of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s emergency session on Congo, scheduled for Friday in Geneva.
She also suggested illicit trade in Congo’s mineral riches may be fuelling the continued fighting, saying: “This has to be exposed and comprehensively addressed.”
Congo’s objections to Indian troops emerged as world figures appealed to the European Union to help provide more security for east Congo, where Nkunda’s troops have gained territory since August.
“While the U.N. has authorised an additional 3,000 troops it will likely take between three and six months to deploy them. The Congolese people cannot wait,” they said in a public letter.
They said the EU could send one of its standing battle groups to help protect civilians which the U.N. says have suffered massacres, executions, rapes and torture by both sides.
Evoking previous massacres in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, the figures, among them Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and billionaire investor George Soros, said world leaders had vowed never to let such atrocities happen again.
“It needs your personal political leadership to … ensure ‘never again’ really means never again,” their letter said.
INDIAN PEACEKEEPERS INVESTIGATED
In their objections to the Indian peacekeepers, Congolese officials described them as “an instrument of destabilisation” but sought to minimise the diplomatic sensitivity of their move by trying not to mention India in public statements. “They mean the Indians, it’s well known,” a western diplomat told Reuters.
Some Indian peacekeepers in Congo have been investigated for sexual misconduct and illicit gold and arms trading, and have also faced accusations of showing support for Nkunda.
Belgium said on Wednesday it could contribute to a possible European force in its former colony, though there have been doubts about such an idea for Congo among some EU members.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com/) (Writing by Pascal Fletcher)