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Aid agencies pull out of eastern Congo

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 30 Oct 2008 15:27 GMT
Author: Rebecka Rosenquist
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Faced with the upsurge of violence in eastern Congo, many international aid agencies are suspending operations and evacuating their staff from the volatile North Kivu region.

One agency warned that children were at risk of being recruited or raped by armed groups as families fled fighting between rebels loyal to Renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda's and government forces.

Another aid group reported that soldiers had overrun one of its offices and stolen its vehicles.

World Vision, ActionAid, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee (IRC) have all declared they are halting work in the provincial capital Goma and are making arrangements for protection of staff in the area.

The United Nations has advised international aid workers to leave Goma and recommended all national workers to stay at home, ActionAid said in a statement.

World Vision has evacuated international staff into Rwanda from where spokesman Michael Arunga reports that the Rwandan border is calm but crowded. Staff in Rutshuru, a border town captured by the rebels on Tuesday, have taken shelter in a local compound of the U.N. peacekeeping force MONUC.

"We will not abandon the critical needs in eastern Congo," said Dr Omo Olupona, World Vision's southern Africa area director. "We expect to set up an operational base inside Rwanda, from where we will continue to monitor the crisis and support those in need of help."

IRC has also placed its Rutshuru-based staff in the U.N. peacekeepers' compound and reduced staff levels in Goma. The agency reports that during fighting on Tuesday, its Rutshuru office was overrun by soldiers who stole vehicles and equipment. IRC also says it's impossible to reach thousands of newly displaced people because of fighting on major roads.

Merlin, a British-based medical charity working in Rutshuru, says it is unable to reach people who fled in chaos when rebels claimed Rutshuru and neighbouring Kiwanja on Tuesday.

"Complete chaos broke out and everyone fled into the bush to the east and north. It is incredibly dangerous for staff to operate at present and we are continuously monitoring the situation which is changing rapidly," said Alice Gilbert, Merlin's project officer for Rutshuru, who was speaking from Goma.

Save the Children, which has also evacuated staff in North Kivu, warned that armed groups were targeting children. It said fighters from all sides are using children in combat.

"Children here are absolutely petrified and are without any protection. Thousands are now trying to cope on their own in the open, having fled the violence," said Hussein Mursal, Save the Children's country director.

"Children are sleeping on the road with no shelter, no clean water, and with very little food."

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said it was still able to distribute food to key nutritional centres and hospitals inside Goma on Wednesday. It has also pre-positioned enough food for 2,000 people at a transit centre just across the border in Rwanda.

But WFP warned that its teams could not reach a key area of Nyanzale, a hilly region in the Rutshuru district, at the start of the month and that this remains a major concern, given the large number of displaced people known to be gathered there.

The United Nations evacuated most civilian staff from its headquarters in Goma to the shore of Lake Kivu on Wednesday.

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