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UNHCR appeals for unimpeded access to refugees in Zaire

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UNHCR appeals for unimpeded access to refugees in Zaire

1 March 1997

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appealed today to all those concerned in the conflict in eastern Zaire to allow unimpeded humanitarian access to refugees caught in the fighting.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said in the last several days relief workers themselves had been subjected to harassment and in an atmosphere of insecurity had been forced to suspend emergency assistance programmes.

Fifty-seven staff members of UNHCR, other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations were evacuated today from Kisangani, logistics hub of humanitarian operations for several hundred thousand refugees in east central Zaire.

"I appeal once again to the combatants to spare the refugees, the women and the children, who have already suffered so much," Ogata said. "We would like to continue to deliver much needed relief to the refugees. Unfortunately, we will not be able to do so unless humanitarian workers are allowed to operate in safety."

The evacuation followed reports of the capture of the key garrison town of Kindu in central Zaire by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire and heightened military activities in the makeshift camps in Tingi-Tingi.

Located 230 km east of Kisangani, Tingi-Tingi holds an estimated 170,000 refugees. Expatriate workers were told by refugee leaders to evacuate Tingi-Tingi Friday because of intensified fighting near the area. Before nightfall Friday, the refugees themselves were preparing to leave Tingi-Tingi. As of today, however, there is no confirmation of refugees moving out of Tingi-Tingi.

Earlier this month, Alliance forces overran the makeshift camps of Shabunda and Amisi, which together had held some 80,000 refugees. Part of the refugees in Shabunda had gone to Kalima, 60 km away. A week ago, the Alliance entered Kalima, prompting 25,000 refugees to move again.

"Since November, we have been practically chasing refugees from one encampment to another trying to give them assistance as confrontation lines shift," Ogata said.

"I am distressed that our workers have to leave at a time when we have just completed arrangements to fly out of the encampments the first group of orphaned refugees in Zaire to Rwanda," Mrs. Ogata said.

Some 60 children were scheduled to be flown out of Tingi-Tingi today at the start of a programme by UNHCR, UNICEF and the World Food Programme to return to Rwanda unaccompanied minors in the makeshift camps in eastern Zaire. More than 5,000 children separated from their families have been found in the encampments.

The initiative is part of a two-pronged plan to return refugees to Rwanda. The first involves flying out vulnerable groups - the children, the sick and the elderly - and the other calls for the opening of overland corridors refugees can use in returning to their country.