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Ogata urges immediate halt to fighting as more refugees flee camp in Zaire

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Ogata urges immediate halt to fighting as more refugees flee camp in Zaire

31 October 1996

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called on Thursday for an immediate end to the fighting in eastern Zaire and warned refugees fleeing for their lives are in grave danger in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

"The human suffering must stop immediately," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said in a statement as 115,000 Rwandan refugees fled Kahindo Camp, 50 kms north of the eastern Zairian border town of Goma, before dawn, fearing that fighting would engulf them.

The refugees from Kahindo were joined by thousands of Zairians in nearby villages and are heading toward Mugunga and Lac Vert camps in the western outskirts of Goma. The two camps are already crammed with 400,000 refugees, including 194,000 who escaped Friday's attack on nearby Kibumba camp and 10,000 displaced Zairians.

"These refugees in Mugunga and Lac Vert are so tightly packed in a very small volcanic region. Unless basic assistance is provided to them, I am very afraid that we are facing a terrible situation where people fleeing for their lives will end up dying because humanitarian aid failed to reach them. I appeal to all sides to stop the fighting now," Ogata said.

Some 100 expatriate workers, including 14 with UNHCR, are trapped in their offices by the fighting in the Goma area, unable to proceed in a race against time to build the basic infrastructure for the new arrivals at Mugunga and Lac Vert in the midst of the rainy season. Food distribution at the two camps which began on Wednesday has been discontinued.

Without food, water and sanitation facilities in Mugunga, Ogata fears a disaster worse than in 1994 when 50,000 refugees died of epidemics at the beginning of the Rwandan refugee exodus.

A fifth camp in the Goma region, Katale, is reported quiet but fighting also is reported in the vicinity. UNHCR has had no access to that area. Katale houses 202,000 Rwandan refugees and is located about 60 kms north of Goma.

There are 1.2 million refugees in eastern Zaire. UNHCR now has been unable to reach some 700,000 of them since fighting broke out earlier this month. They include about 500,000 in the Bukavu and Uvira regions and the Katale refugees.

Ogata also said she was "extremely saddened" by reports that Monsignor Christophe Munzi Hirwa, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bukavu south of Goma, had been assassinated. "This man of peace has now paid with his life while urging reason and restraint."

The High Commissioner recalled that only on Friday, hours before she made an impassioned request to Security Council members for swift political action to halt the raging battles in eastern Zaire, she had received an urgent telephone call from Munzi Hirwa.

The archbishop had urged Ogata to convey his fears to the United Nations Secretary General and the Security Council that a humanitarian disaster may be imminent and had asked that immediate measures be taken to contain the situation in Zaire.