As renewed fighting erupted on Tuesday in Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), humanitarian officials said movement around the town was almost "impossible" although the UN Mission in the country, MONUC, was reported to have secured the remaining limited humanitarian aid supplies.
Humanitarian workers, along with thousands of Bunia residents, have sought refuge in the MONUC compound in Bunia.
Leaders of humanitarian organisations, who evacuated Bunia over the weekend, convened in the eastern DRC town of Goma in an effort to piece together the information they had each received to determine what, if any, action could be taken under conditions of such insecurity.
"You have to reckon with crossfire wherever you go. None of the militias are able to control their troops. Humanitarian supplies and humanitarian workers are at constant risk, and MONUC cannot provide adequate security in order to access civilian populations," said one humanitarian agency representative. "MONUC is barely able to protect the airport and their own bases."
Although limited humanitarian supplies sent by the EC Humanitarian Office and various NGOs have been able to reach Bunia in recent days, air travel to the embattled town depended on security clearance via VHF radio from MONUC forces controlling the airport to determine whether it was safe to send in cargo or personnel.
However, the fact that MONUC controls only the airport and not the periphery has left all aircraft vulnerable to attacks from the ground.
On Tuesday, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) sent two planeloads of relief items from Goma to Bunia to assist the victims of the renewed fighting. The UN agency reported that while the extent of the displacement of population was not yet known, it feared that "hundreds of thousands" of people, mainly children and women, were fleeing the violence "and the starvation it has brought in its wake".
Local sources said that after the ethnic Hema rebel group, Union des patriotes congolais (UPC) took control of Bunia on Monday, many Hemas who had sought refuge at the UN compound had returned home but had been replaced by other ethnic groups scared of the UPC.
UNICEF sent drug kits, water storage containers, intravenous drips for the injured, tents, plastic sheeting, sachets of oral re-hydration salts, jerrycans and water purification products.
In addition to the concerns over civilian protection, water and sanitation, and food security already voiced by relief workers on Monday, humanitarian agencies highlighted the lack of medical care as increasingly urgent. Moreover, the status of local medical staff who were forced to flee the fighting remained unknown.
Citing numerous reports of injured patients dying on operating tables in the absence of medical personnel and supplies, they discussed the possibility of setting up an emergency field hospital at one of the few relatively secure locations in Bunia - perhaps at the MONUC compound or at a medical centre that could be rapidly rehabilitated and secured, perhaps even at the airport. They all stressed that any such facility should be located on "ethnically neutral" territory, so that individuals of all ethnicities would not fear seeking medical treatment.
Thousands of civilians were reported to be fleeing in various directions away from Bunia, although precise figures could not be determined. In a statement issued on Tuesday by World Vision International, a member of the NGO's Uganda Emergency Response and Disaster Mitigation support team, Wycliff Kyamanywa, estimated the number of Congolese refugees who had crossed over to Bundibugyo district in Uganda to be around 20,000.
Local sources said that some families in Bunia, fearing the UPC, had set out to try to walk to Beni, 200 km away. However, some people had been turned back at a UPC barrier erected at the village of Chai, 12 km from Bunia. The sources said one district in the south of Bunia was empty because everyone had left on foot for Beni.
Widespread reports being received by humanitarian organisations in Goma indicated that internally displaced people (IDPs) have been prevented from fleeing the region by armed factions that seek to hold them hostage, and from entering other regions by armed factions that seek to avoid having the conflict spill over into their territory.
Meanwhile, the possibility that Hema militias would repel Tuesday's Lendu offensive posed a new range of concerns, as humanitarian workers worried about a possible implosion of the uneasy alliance between two rival Hema rebel leaders Thomas Lubanga and Chief Kawa Mandro Panga.
News that a joint rapid intervention force could be sent in the coming days by France and South Africa was greeted with guarded optimism by aid organisations, as Hema militia leaders and the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) rebel movement to which they are allied have already warned that such forces would be considered to be "enemies".