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After Kisangani's fall UNHCR urges full access to refugees, says ready to go in

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After Kisangani's fall UNHCR urges full access to refugees, says ready to go in

16 March 1997

The United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, has urged the warring factions to give humanitarian workers full access to hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people scattered around the jungles of central-eastern Zaire.

"The refugees are at the end of their strength. Their harrowing odyssey through the wilderness has to stop now, or many more lives will be lost.", Mrs Ogata said. She added that the refugee agency will expand its relief operation and start repatriating refugees to Rwanda as soon as it gains unimpeded access to the area.

In early March, UNHCR had to evacuate its staff from Kisangani, following a sharp deterioration in the security situation. But now it is ready to deploy emergency teams in Kisangani and other areas as soon as the security situation improves.

Up to 100 thousand refugees are currently massed on the eastern Bank of the Zaire river across from the town of Ubundu. Tens of thousands more are somewhere between Ubundu and the former refugee camp of Tingi Tingi.

Mrs Ogata expressed the hope that the Alliance leadership would abide by its promises not to attack the Ubundu area where the refugees have converged. She stressed that the refugees are extremely exhausted by the months-long trek through the jungle. "They must gather some strength before we can repatriate them to Rwanda."

UNHCR warned that possible military activities in the Ubundu area could trigger panic among the refugee population, pushing it across the Zaire river and further into the wilderness west of Ubundu. A number of people have already drowned while wading across the river or trying to cross it in makeshift rafts.

Mrs Ogata emphasised that all effort should be made to allow the refugees to return to Rwanda in complete freedom. She warned that further movement of the refugees across the river and into the wilderness west of Ubundu would cause more deaths and misery, and it would also make it logistically impossible for UNHCR to assist and repatriate them. "They should stay where they are now since this is the last place where we can locate them and help them."