UNHCR repatriates 197 refugees from Kinshasa to Brazzaville

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repatriated on Thursday 197 Republic of Congo refugees from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), following assurances from Brazzaville authorities that their safety would be guaranteed.

Concern for the refugees' security is based on the events of May 1999, when thousands of Congolese who had fled fighting that had plagued Brazzaville since 1998 chose to return to the capital, taking advantage of a "humanitarian corridor" established by UNHCR.

Numerous sources present at the time determined that at least 350 individuals had "disappeared" during their return from exile. They have become known as the "Disparus du Beach" - those who disappeared from Brazzaville's port known as "le Beach" on the River Congo. The Congolese government before its Tribunal de Grande Instance in Brazzaville is holding hearings on the matter. Meanwhile, at the High Court in the French town of Meaux, the inspector-general of Congo's armed forces, Gen Norbert Dabira, is on trial for crimes of torture, forced disappearance and crimes against humanity.

"We received assurances that such incidents would never occur again," Mohamed Dayri, UNHCR's interim representative in the DRC, told IRIN.

He added: "The 197 Congo-Brazzaville refugees voluntarily accepted to be repatriated, we did not push them to return. Since the signing of a peace accord between Pasteur Ntoumi [alias of rebel "Ninja" leader Rev Frederic Bitsangou] and the Brazzaville government, there is a new dynamic among the refugees that we are trying to get a handle on."

UNHCR, he said, had put in place a follow-up mechanism to verify the well-being of the returnees.

UNHCR has registered 1,774 refugees in DRC who fled civil war in the Republic of Congo in 1999.

Since the 17 March signing of a peace accord between Ntoumi and Brazzaville, there have been two prior but smaller rounds of refugee repatriations from Kinshasa to Brazzaville: the first on 17 April, when 20 Congolese were returned, the second on 13 June, when 42 Congolese were returned.

A second round of repatriation is foreseen for next week, but the number of candidates remained unknown because registration was still underway.