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UNHCR calls for urgent airlift of refugees in Zaire

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UNHCR calls for urgent airlift of refugees in Zaire

21 April 1997

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today called on the Kisangani authorities in Eastern Zaire to take urgent action to airlift Rwandan refugees home, saying that each day's delay would lead to more deaths.

In a statement, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata also urged the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire to allow aid workers to resume their work in the makeshift camps south of Kisangani. Since Friday, violence and looting have prevented relief workers from conducting emergency programmes for more than 100,000 malnourished and desperate refugees in the area and for neighbouring villages.

"Since April 5 when the Alliance originally approved the airlift, we have done our best to get the operation off the ground. But our every effort has been frustrated," Mrs. Ogata said .

"Since Friday a series of security incidents, including the looting of foodstocks, has blocked our access to the camps. Today the military told us that we would not be allowed in the camps because of a security operation in the area," she said.

"This is not good enough. We must have access and we must begin the airlift. Every day's delay means more lives lost . Repatriation is the only solution for these people, the only way to guarantee their safety. If we cannot reach the refugees, neither can we reach the local population, who also badly need our assistance."

Local authorities in Zaire have been delaying the beginning of the airlift, saying the presence of cholera in the makeshift camps would contaminate the city. UNHCR maintains that the cholera outbreak is containable and that the refugees stand more risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses from conditions in the overcrowded camps.

Crowds of civilians have been attacking aid vehicles and looting food aid over the last four days. In the border town of Goma, the other end of the proposed airbridge from Kisangani, local authorities commandeered jet fuel earmarked for the airlift. The latest security operation, mounted in response to the alleged killing of Zairean nationals by refugees, follows an aggressive radio campaign against the refugees in the region.

UNHCR is calling for security guarantees for its staff to carry out their urgent humanitarian work in the camps and to begin the much-delayed airlift. It also expects the local authorities to do their part to defuse tensions between the refugees and the local population.