United Nations humanitarian agencies today voiced their growing concern for civilians affected by the recent fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the situation remains "alarming" as rebel fighters continue their advance across North Kivu province.
Fighters with the 23 March Movement (M23) - a rebel group composed of soldiers who mutinied from the DRC national army in April - occupied Goma, the capital of North Kivu, on Tuesday after launching a new wave of attacks over the weekend. Fighting has continued and the rebels are now said to have reached the town of Sake, which is 20 kilometres west of Goma.
"The situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo remains alarming," said UN peacekeeping spokesperson Kieran Dwyer. "The M23 are now present in Sake, with reports indicating that they may be on the move toward Masisi territory, which is their stronghold."
The UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) - which deployed attack helicopters in support of the national army, known by the French acronym FARDC, in the wake of the latest attacks - retains control of the Goma airport and continues active patrols throughout the city.
"The Mission is also positioning itself to try to prevent further advances of the M23," said Mr. Dwyer. "However, MONUSCO cannot act in substitute to the Congolese army and national security forces in directly confronting the M23."
The rebel advance has uprooted tens of thousands of civilians, and fuelled numerous allegations of human rights abuses by both the rebels and the national army.
With fighting continuing in North Kivu, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is extremely concerned about the situation of displaced Congolese civilians, especially children and other vulnerable groups.
Normally, UNHCR oversees 31 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) hosting 108,000 people in North Kivu. "But the fighting has meant that we and our partners have not been able to access most of these," spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva.
The agency is also worried about the fierce fighting around the town of Sake, where Government troops and militia "appear to have put up stiff resistance to the M23 advance," said Mr. Edwards.
The World Food Programme (WFP) said today it has already begun assessing food needs in and around Goma, and is planning to provide emergency food assistance to IDP sites and camps in the area.
Until this week, the agency had been providing food assistance to 447,000 IDPs and host families in North Kivu. While food distributions to IDPs have been interrupted, school feeding and nutrition activities are still going on in the rest of the province.
"Prior to this recent upsurge in conflict, WFP was planning to assist about one million displaced people and host families in eastern DRC during the month of November," said spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs. "It is not yet possible to assess how those needs might change, but we are already preparing to expand our response if needed, including identifying food stocks and transportation capacity elsewhere in the region that could be redeployed."
Meanwhile, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that, because of the security situation in the wake of the fall of Goma, UN human rights teams in the area face considerable difficulties verifying alleged abuses.
"Nevertheless, they have managed to gather information on a number of alleged incidents that reportedly occurred before, during and after the fall of Goma," OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville said in Geneva.
Alleged violations by the M23 include the killing of civilians, abduction, and looting and destruction, while those allegedly carried out by FARDC soldiers including wounding of civilians and the looting and burning of houses.
MONUSCO has been actively monitoring and following up on reports of human rights violations in the context of the fighting, Mr. Dwyer noted. "Though access by investigation teams remains difficult due to the security situation, MONUSCO is verifying a number of reports of civilians who may have been wounded, some killed, due to the recent fighting in Goma and Sake."
The Mission is especially focused, he said, on the protection of children in the context of the military attacks and advances by the M23 group, and will, as part of its daily monitoring and reporting, continue to investigate and follow up on allegations of grave child rights violations.
In addition, it is working to support the Government to address essential services for the population, in particular to urgently repair electricity infrastructure damaged during the M23 attacks in the Goma area.
Also as part of its efforts to protect civilians, MONUSCO has airlifted some 76 people to safety to date. This includes individuals who were at risk of being targeted by the M23, many of whom sought refuge at MONUSCO bases, including Government authorities, magistrates, Congolese police, journalists and human rights defenders.
MONUSCO has some 1,500 'blue helmets' in Goma, and another 6,700 and 4,000 in the provinces of North and South Kivu, respectively, including, in some places, behind the M23 lines.