UNHCR urges protection for civilians amid fresh fighting in DR Congo

UNHCR is particularly concerned for the safety of thousands of internally displaced people after shelling hit areas close to Mugunga III camp, causing people to flee.

Congolese children play outside a crude shelter in Mugunga III camp. People started fleeing the camp after artillery fire landed nearby.  © UNHCR/F.Noy

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 22 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said on Wednesday it was concerned about the latest outbreak of heavy fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and urged all parties to ensure the safety of civilians.

The fresh combat erupted early on Tuesday between government troops and fighters of the M23 movement in DRC's troubled North Kivu province. The two sides first clashed in April last year and subsequent waves of fighting have led to the internal displacement of tens of thousands of people, while more than 60,000 have sought shelter in Uganda and Rwanda.

This is the first major fighting between the two sides since the M23 captured the North Kivu capital, Goma, last November before withdrawing and entering into peace talks in Uganda with the government. These have achieved little.

In a press statement released on Wednesday, UNHCR said it was particularly concerned for the safety of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) in camps around Goma. "Yesterday [Tuesday], shelling was reported close to the Mugunga III camp for IDPs, causing panic among the more than 13,000 inhabitants, mostly women and children. Six local people living near the camp were injured during the attacks," it said.

UNHCR added that Mugunga III "has been emptying, with the IDPs fleeing from Mugunga and heading towards Goma, some 15 kilometres to the east. Others are heading northwards to Sake, 10 kms away from the camp. Local residents are also reported to be fleeing from the Mugunga area."

The refugee agency also called on parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of all civilians, including displaced people. "The principle of distinguishing between military targets and the civilian population must be respected," the press release quoted Kouassi Etien, UNHCR's head of office in Goma, as saying.

According to UN estimates, there are more than 2.5 million forcibly displaced people in the DR Congo, including some 900,000 people in North Kivu. An estimated 350,000 displaced people currently live in about 55 IDP sites across North Kivu, with half of the camps located in areas affected by conflict. Others live with host families.