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Lubbers starts mission to Africa's Great Lakes region and Angola

News Stories, 20 August 2003

© UNHCR/D.Marie
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers with the Congolese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antoine Ghonda Mangalibi, in Kinshasa.

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 20 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers arrived today in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), kicking off a four-nation visit to review UNHCR's operations and various peace initiatives that could pave the way for the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees in several countries of the Great Lakes region.

On Wednesday, the first of his two-day visit to the DRC, Lubbers held separate meetings with three government ministers, among them the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Antoine Ghonda Mangalibi; Minister of Interior, Theophile Mbemba Fundu; and the Minister of Human Rights, Magdaleine Kalala. He is also expected to meet with President Joseph Kabila on Thursday morning.

The head of the refugee agency, who travelled to the DRC aboard a UNHCR-chartered aircraft from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, made a brief refuelling stop in the eastern DRC town of Goma, where he met with the Governor of north Kivu, Eugene Serufuli. In his briefing on the security situation in the province, Serufuli expressed concerns about continuing insecurity in the province. He noted that the prevailing conditions in north Kivu were not yet conducive for the return of thousands of Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries.

The Congolese governor added that Rwandan refugees in his region are continuing to return home, emerging from forest areas to gather at designated meeting points from where they are transported back to Rwanda. So far this year, more than 8,800 Rwandan refugees have repatriated from the Kivu region. Since 2000, more than 58,000 Rwandan refugees have returned home from the DRC.

High Commissioner Lubbers told reporters in Goma that the refugee agency was planning an integrated return operation for the voluntary repatriation of more than 300,000 Congolese refugees mainly in Tanzania, Zambia and the Republic of Congo. He credited the agency's achievements so far to positive political developments in the DRC.

"Our planning today is a direct consequence of the progress achieved on the political front in Congo," Lubbers told journalists.

On July 17, in accordance with the terms of a peace deal, a transitional government incorporating members from all four rebel groups in the DRC was established. Under the deal, President Kabila will remain head of state pending the organisation of multi-party elections in the vast central Africa country that is slowly emerging from years of war that have claimed more than a million lives, by some estimates.

On UNHCR's immediate plans for the return of Congolese refugees, Lubbers said the agency would, in the coming weeks, assist the return of more than 1,300 Congolese refugees who are anxious to go home from Molangue camp in the Central African Republic. He said that a number of Congolese refugees had also begun to return home on their own from neighbouring Zambia to the Katanga region in southern DRC.

During his meetings with various government ministers in the DRC on Wednesday and with President Kabila on Thursday, Lubbers is expected to appeal for improved access to refugees by humanitarian workers, and better human rights as a prerequisite for refugee return. Due to the recurring conflict in north Kivu, UNHCR has had intermittent contact with more than 40,000 Sudanese refugees who are hosted in the Aru area close to the DRC/Sudan border. Improved access is also needed to enable the agency's staff to search for Rwandan refugees who remain scattered in large forest areas of eastern DRC.

Lubbers is expected to proceed to the Angolan capital, Luanda, on Thursday the second leg of his four-nation tour which also includes Tanzania and Burundi. However, the High Commissioner is considering cutting short his trip after receiving shocking news that the UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed on Tuesday.

"We are shocked and outraged by the attack, which ultimately is aimed at the Iraqi people that the United Nations is trying to help," said Lubbers. "This senseless attack is a setback to the UN's humanitarian efforts to aid Iraqis who have been through decades of suffering."

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