"Humanitarian catastrophe" emerging in Ituri, UN says

A growing humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Ituri District, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as rebels and ethnic militia battle for dominance, according to a UN official.

"We are greatly concerned," Hamadoun Toure, the spokesman for the UN Mission in the DRC, told reporters in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, on Wednesday. "The confrontation between rebel factions supported by Uganda [on the one hand] and ethnic militias [on the other] is producing a humanitarian catastrophe."

He said humanitarian organisations had confirmed a large number of people had been displaced by the fighting. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reported at least 500,000 displaced people in the district.

"This fighting is quite pointless. Everyone, including the belligerents, agrees. Yet nobody appears to be able to stop the fighting," Toure said.

His remarks related to recent meetings between the UN Secretary-General's special representative to the DRC, Amos Namanga Ngongi, and two rebel leaders. He met Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Mouvement de liberation du Congo, in the northwestern town of Gbadolite on Saturday. Subsequently, Ngongi met Mbusa Nyamwisi, the leader of the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Kisangani/Mouvement de liberation (RCD-K-ML).

"Both of them seem to have opted for peace," Toure said.

The belligerents' call for the establishment of an Ituri peace commission failed to materialise, because, Toure said, of demands made by Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the Hema rebel movement, Union du people congolais (UPC). Lubanga's movement, a splinter group of the RCD-K-ML, had called on the government recognise Ituri (which UPC controls) as an autonomous province. The government refused, so the idea of setting up a peace commission flopped.

"We must now hurry and set up this commission, because that task cannot be left to the people themselves," Toure said.

In fact, the Ugandan army, which was keeping the peace in the area, has pulled out two battalions from the DRC, and is due to withdraw the remainder of its troops in December.