Medeshi Oct 31 , 2008
West scrambles to avert all-out Congo war
Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, was to fly to Democratic Republic of Congo and neighbouring Rwanda today on an emergency mission to help prevent all-out regional war.
Mr. Miliband and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, are expected to see for themselves the humanitarian fall-out from the fighting in eastern Congo where Rwandan-backed rebels have battled to the gates of the regional capital Goma.
The fighting has created tens of thousands more internal refugees, swelling the ranks of the quarter-million already displaced by the conflict since August.
With tens of thousands now roaming out of the reach of aid workers, the Red Cross has warned of a coming “humanitarian catastrophe” underlined by reports today that rebel forces had emptied displacement camps of civilians and looted their belongings before torching the sites.
Congo troops unleash death on own people
Rwanda gambles on rebels to show strength
UN peacekeepers braced for full-scale war
In the besieged city of Goma, government soldiers have turned to looting, with killings and rapes also reported. A fragile ceasefire has held since late Wednesday evening with thousands of United Nations peacekeepers stationed in defence of the city but residents remain on a knife-edge with the possibility that peace could dissolve at any moment.
The rebels are led by the charismatic ethnic Tutsi leader Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general from the Congolese army. He claims to fight in defence of the marginalised Tutsi minority. He draws support from the Tutsi-led regime in Rwanda, which is striving to secure control of eastern Congo and its vast and lucrative mineral deposits.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame vehemently denies the association and has avoided international opprobrium largely because of Western guilt over failures to halt the 1994 genocide.
That may now change with Mr. Miliband’s visit. He and Mr. Kouchner will go with strong warnings for leaders in Kigali and Kinshasa that the violence must end. They will press Mr. Kagame and the Congolese president Laurent Kabila to sit down at the same table and negotiate a lasting truce. “Our view is that it’s a political problem,” a senior British official said. “They need to stop.”
Rwanda regards itself as a close ally to Britain but not to France, which Mr. Kagame blames for failing to prevent the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis by Hutu militiamen. Since taking office, Mr. Kagame has even removed French as an official language, replacing it with English - a move that has provided British companies with lucrative contracts for school textbooks.
Mr. Miliband’s intervention in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts may appear a huge risk; in reality he has everything to gain as the situation in Congo could barely be worse and almost any improvement could be heralded as a success.
The two envoys will visit north Kivu for a snapshot of the humanitarian crisis there to press the point to Congo and Rwanda’s leaders over the dire consequences of continued conflict. American and UN envoys themselves arrived in Congo yesterday to deliver similar messages to leaders there.
Earlier today, the UN refugee agency said it had received reports that 50,000 people had been forces out of refugee camps and ad-hoc settlements in areas around the town of Rutshuru, seized by rebels in recent days.
The uprooted are in “desperate need of help,” according to Antonio Guterres, the agency’s chief. The chaos has sent a tide of displaced people fleeing in all directions to evade armed groups, taking them beyond the reach of aid agencies, many of whom have been forced to evacuate.
“The conflict is now threatening the lives of our aid workers so we have temporarily withdrawn our staff to safety,” Hussein Mursal, Save the Children’s country director said. “With the humanitarian crisis worsening day by day, it’s vital for us to be able to get help to communities, but the security situation is making it impossible