New York — Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today expressed his alarm at the escalating violence over the past 24 hours in the volatile east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), lamenting the "catastrophic" humanitarian toll the conflict is taking in the region.
In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities and to abide by international law and said that he "deplores the use of civilians as human shields and their deliberate targeting by belligerents."
Fighting has intensified in recent days between Government forces (FARDC) and the militia known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by former general Laurent Nkunda, in North Kivu province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported today that as many as 45,000 people have fled camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) for nearby Goma, North Kivu's capital. "People were running in all directions," said a staff member with the agency, describing the situation.
Over 1,000 other Congolese have escaped to neighbouring Uganda over the past 24 hours, with hundreds more expected to join them, UNHCR said.
Since August, as many as 250,000 Congolese have been made homeless, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that IDPs in North Kivu number around 850,000, stressing that a constantly-evolving situation means that these figures are only estimates.
In today's statement, the Secretary-General said that he "appeals to all those with influence on the ground to do everything possible to restore an effective ceasefire and prevent further suffering in the civilian population."
He also called for all attacks on Goma and on UN personnel and aid workers to end, as well as for humanitarian access - restricted by both sides - to civilians and aid workers.
Mr. Ban "is particularly alarmed at the reported exchange of heavy weapons across the DRC-Rwanda border and deplores the apparent targeting of UN peacekeepers in Kibumba," a town situated 20 kilometres north of Goma.
The collapse of discipline among FARDC units is also a source of concern, with looting reported, the Secretary-General said, calling on the DRC Government to "spare no effort" to establish control over forces and end attacks on UN and associated staff.
He voiced his appreciation for the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, known as MONUC, which is "doing everything possible to protect civilians and fulfil their mandate in untenable circumstances."
Mr. Ban, who is travelling in the Philippines today, told reporters that he has been in contact with the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda, as well as top officials in Europe and Africa.
He added that he has dispatched two senior advisers to the region. Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmund Mulet will visit the DRC, while Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Haile Menkerios will be dispatched to Rwanda.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) expressed concern over the mounting difficulties in delivering food to the displaced.
The agency has 15 trucks loaded with supplies which are grounded due to the insecurity, and it said that less than half of the 100,000 metric tons of food needed to feed people in both North and South Kivu provinces monthly is currently available.
Meanwhile, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) underscored the importance of controlling the spread of communicable diseases, such as cholera and measles, and guaranteeing access to safe food and water.
The agency, which has both medicine and staff in the country ready to assist, called on parties to the conflict to not target health facilities and health care providers.
For his part, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voiced particular concern over the fighting's impact on Virunga National Park, a World Heritage site.
"According to the information I have received, the park rangers can no longer patrol" and the habitat of the last population of highly endangered mountain gorillas are threatened, said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura.
Yesterday, the top UN envoy to the DRC underscored that force is not the solution to the violence wracking the country's east.
"What we've said all along is that this isn't a question of winning or losing," Alan Doss, the Secretary-General's Special Representative, emphasized. "What we want is for the CNDP to enter a process and stay in the process and remain committed to agreements they have signed."