Thousands flee refugee camp as rebels advance on Goma
VA (AFP) - Forty-five thousand people have fled a refugee camp in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in chaotic scenes as rebel forces advance on the city of Goma, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday.
"The whole camp was packing up and leaving" after refugees saw Congolese government troops themselves passing the Kibati camp in large numbers as they move south, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told AFP.
The camp in Kibati, some 10 kilometres north of Goma, had seen an influx of around 30,000 people in recent days in addition to the some 15,000 already there as the conflict in the Nord-Kivu region between government forces and Tutsi rebels intensified.
Redmond said that UNHCR staff had been in the camp delivering food and other emergency supplies to the "exhausted and traumatised" refugees when government forces were seen moving south "fairly fast, and in fairly large numbers."
Seeing this, the displaced people began running themselves, abandoning the camp and becoming mingled with the troops who were heading into Goma, he said. UNHCR staff in the town reported a "huge rush of people" coming in amid chaotic scenes, but no sounds of immediate fighting, he added.
The city's governor earlier told AFP that government forces were fleeing the rebel advance.
Other aid agencies on the ground also expressed concern at the plight of the fleeing refugees and urged all sides in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.
"We are very worried about the security of the fleeing civilians, some of whom are blocked in the combat zones," said Marcal Izard, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The ICRC has five expatriate staff in Goma, but hopes to boost its presence and provide urgently needed help to medical services, Izard said.
Meanwhile, government forces are fleeing from the key eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma ahead of advancing rebels, military sources and residents contacted by telephone said Wednesday.
Residents of Goma began fleeing in panic as rebels advanced on the regional capital, governor Julien Paluku told AFP.
"People are stampeding and the city is panicking," said Paluku, adding that the local population had been alarmed by an influx of around 20,000 refugees from fighting further north.
Combat between government forces and rebels loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda has escalated since the weekend. "There are no more soldiers in the town," said one resident on condition of anonymity. Combat tanks were returning from front lines north of Goma and were "heading in the direction" of Bukavu, the capital of the neighbouring province of Sud-Kivu, he said.
The rebels said they expected to be able to take Goma, capital of Nord-Kivu province, as early as Wednesday or early Thursday, a spokesman for Nkunda told AFP.
Meanwhile maritime authorities in Bukavu said boatloads of people were heading south from Goma, like Bukavu a port city on the west bank of Lake Kivu.
"Many people are fleeing Goma by boat towards Bukavu with their families. They are rushing here," an official said.
Meanwhile, France supports sending an EU battle group of up to 1,500 troops to help tackle unrest in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday.
Kouchner said the French European Union presidency and the United Nations had discussed the battle groups "which can provide between 400 and 1,500 men that we could deploy in Europe's name within eight to 10 days."