November 1, 2008

Fears Mount for 50,000 Congo Refugees

Humanitarian officials say they're worried whether 50,000 refugees forced to flee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo can survive long in the bush.

United Nations officials said the refugees ran off as forces loyal to renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda advanced toward the eastern Congo regional capital of Goma. They said the camps in Rutshuru, north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and then burned to the ground, the BBC said.

"There are some 50,000 people who were in those camps," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond told the broadcaster. "We don't know where they would be; we're afraid that they may have just dispersed off into the bush."

Nkunda, leader of the rebel forces, declared a cease-fire late Wednesday. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer, the top diplomat for Africa, told CNN she believes both sides are committed to the truce.

"I think we're starting to move down a political track, but I certainly do think that it's very fragile," Frazer said Saturday.

More than 35,000 others fleeing the fighting have entered Goma. Aid for them, however, has been slow in coming because of the poor security situation. Many international relief workers have pulled out because of reports of widespread rape and looting by retreating Congolese troops, the BBC said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, were to meet Saturday with Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda President Paul Kagame, the broadcaster reported.