GOMA, November 3 – UN workers prepared Monday to deliver the first aid in a week inside rebel-controlled territory as a fragile ceasefire held in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
UN peacekeepers were to escort the humanitarian convoy to Rutshuru, a town in Nord-Kivu province, after government forces and rebels assured its security, said Gloria Fernandez, head of mission for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
It will be the first aid to the area since its distribution was interrupted by an escalation in the conflict a week ago.
The rebels have been observing a unilateral ceasefire since Wednesday.
"Many humanitarian organisations were forced to leave their places of work and suspend their operations temporarily," Fernandez told reporters in Goma, the capital of Nord-Kivu province.
As the rebels sought to reassure residents in newly-captured territories that they would be safe, Western diplomats pleaded for cooperation to address humanitarian concerns.
"More than 1.6 million internally displaced are trapped in the crisis" and cannot be easily reached, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Sunday in the Tanzanian city of Dar Es Salaam.
"They are without food, water and other necessities."
Miliband was speaking after he and French counterpart Bernard Kouchner met Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, chairman of the African Union, following talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame.
Kinshasa has accused Rwanda’s Tutsi-dominated regime of backing the rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by a former general, Laurent Nkunda, who says he is protecting local Tutsis.
Kigali denies the charge, but analysts say there is little doubt Rwanda, frustrated by Kinshasa’s failure to disarm a Rwandan Hutu rebel group that is harbouring key perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, is helping Nkunda.
Uruguayan military commander Jorge Rosales, overseeing UN peacekeeping troops in the DRC, said Friday the rebel forces were being backed by tanks and artillery from Rwanda.
Kikwete said Sunday he was involved in diplomatic efforts ahead of a summit in Nairobi next week, where the leaders of Rwanda and Congo have agreed to discuss the crisis.
The top US diplomat for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, has also held talks with Kabila and Kagame.
On the main road linking Goma and Rutshuru, 75 kilometres (45 miles) to the north, a flood of people, many of whom fled just seven days ago, trudged along a road on foot, carrying bundles of personal belongings.
They were making their way back to their homes, many starving after fleeing refugee camps and sleeping outside.
"We received no food, so we are returning," said Paul Bashoboye Bareke, 51, surrounded by his wife and their eight children.
Tens of thousands of people who had taken refuge in camps in Rutshuru fled as fighting intensified last week and dispersed into nearby forests and villages.
Fernandez could not confirm reports that the rebels had forced civilians out of camps at Rutshuru.
But she said: "Most of these people fled the camps in fear and in panic as they heard that (rebel) troops were advancing on the area…. There was considerable panic in the area."
The development charity Oxfam urged the European Union to send troops to support the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in the DRC.
"Given the fragility of the ceasefire and fears for another outbreak of intense fighting around Goma, more troops must be deployed as soon as possible," said Juliette Prodhan, head of Oxfam in the DRC.
The extra troops could help create a secure environment for humanitarian agencies to help people who were in desperate need, she said.
"The situation is currently too unstable to reach many of the people who have fled to escape the fighting," Prodhan said.
"They are dispersed over a wide, inhospitable area. Many are hiding in the forests and bush without access to shelter, water, food and medicines. We need to be able to get there so that we can help them."