Repatriation of 350 refugees to Congo delayed

The repatriation of 350 refugees from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo has been delayed further pending the holding of more meetings to discuss details for the operation, a Congolese official told IRIN on Sunday.

"There are pre-conditions to be met before the repatriation begins," Jean Kitambala, the director for civil protection and refugees at the Congolese Ministry of Interior, said.

He said that identification of the refugees would have to be undertaken, their destinations in the Congo ascertained and technical meetings held to examine the details for the repatriation.

He added that a tripartite agreement was yet to be signed by the CAR, the DRC and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Kitambala, who has been touring the CAR capital, Bangui, since 26 October met officials of the National Commission for Refugees, those of the UNHCR and the minister for territorial administration, Marcel Malonga.

Malonga said the CAR would continue to grant asylum to Congolese refugees until conditions for their repatriation were fulfilled.

Kitambala’s visit took place as the 350 refugees gathered at the Red Cross compound, awaiting repatriation. The UNHCR protection officer, Mamadou Diane, told IRIN on Saturday that an aircraft had been chartered for the refugees, who were initially scheduled to leave on 20 October. He said the refugees, whose destinations and identification had been jointly established by the UNHCR and the Congolese embassy in Bangui, were receiving three cooked meals daily, prepared by Red Cross volunteers. All were originally from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.

"I am going to write my report to the government so that it can quickly authorise the repatriation of our compatriots," Kitambala said.

He added that the repatriation would not await the signing of the CAR-DRC-UNHCR tripartite agreement scheduled for 15 November in Bangui. He said the agreement would concern the remaining 7,000 Congolese refugees, 2,900 of who lived in Camp Molangue, 120 km south of Bangui.

The Congolese refugees began fleeing to the CAR in May 1997, when rebels loyal to late President Laurent-Desire Kabila overthrew President Mobutu Sese Seko.

In August, the UNHCR reported that 1,300 Congolese refugees had expressed the wish to be repatriated. Kitambala said the Congolese government opposed their spontaneous return.