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Ogata warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Great Lakes

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Ogata warns of looming humanitarian crisis in Great Lakes

22 October 1996

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Tuesday expressed deep concern over the plight of Burundi and Rwandan refugees forced to flee their camps in eastern Zaire in the face of intensified ethnic fighting.

"I am deeply worried by the widening scale of violence in eastern Zaire in recent weeks that has once again sent tens of thousands of refugees - women, children, sick and elderly - fleeing for their lives," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said in a statement. "Unless all parties to this conflict step back, we are, I am afraid, heading toward a humanitarian catastrophe."

Ogata also expressed concern for the safety of humanitarian staff who have been unable to carry out their work because of the fighting between Zairian troops and the Banyamulenge, people of Rwandan origin. As of Tuesday morning, more than 50 international staff members of UNHCR, other U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations were trapped in UNHCR's office in Uvira. Over the last 24 hours, the staff reported they could hear sound of gunfire outside.

"After all our efforts the past few years to provide help and some sense of stability in the Uvira camps in almost impossible conditions, we are once again facing an emergency operation. The refugees and humanitarian workers are at the mercy of a very unstable and dangerous security situation, and it is impossible at this time to predict the outcome. I thus appeal to all sides to halt the violence immediately and avoid another humanitarian disaster in a region that has already suffered enough."

Zairian military authorities report that all 12 camps in the Uvira region have been abandoned because of the fighting. The 220,000 refugees from the camps - 143,000 Burundi and 75,000 Rwandan - are reported to be either hiding in the surrounding hills or are heading toward Bukavu, about 75 kms north of Uvira. UNHCR field officers have also observed hundreds of local Zaireans moving towards Uvira town, fleeing the conflict.

Some 3,000 refugees have arrived in the Nyengezi-Mulwa camp in the Bukavu region and scores are in Bukavu town itself. UNHCR is preparing existing camps in Bukavu to receive refugee arrivals from Uvira.

UNHCR field officers expect the Burundi refugees will remain in the Uvira region. Rwandan refugees wishing to return to Rwanda will be assisted.

In the Goma region on Sunday, there were military reports of fighting in the vicinity of three camps, leaving one officer dead and another soldier wounded. Reports on the ground indicate that fighting was continuing on Tuesday in at least one area north of Goma.

Zaire hosts 1 million of the 1.6 million Rwandan refugees. The rest are in Tanzania.