By Bonny Ibhawoh,

Aid agency says international mission puts civilians at risk by joining government attacks on Rwandan Hutu rebels

Mark Tran, Thursday 14 May 2009 09.10 BST
A UN-backed offensive against Hutu rebels in eastern Congo is likely to lead to civilian deaths and widespread suffering, Oxfam warned today. The warning from the aid agency came as Monuc, the UN-led peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, prepares to support the Congolese army in a new offensive against Hutu militias who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide that killed almost 1 million people.
The UN mission is providing logistical and military backing for the Congolese army as it seeks to contain a rebel resurgence in North Kivu and prepares to extend operations into neighbouring South Kivu. Oxfam said the previous joint offensive, launched in January, had already created immense suffering for thousands of civilians, with an estimated 250,000 people still unable to return to their homes. Villagers have reported that thousands of homes have been burned to the ground in reprisal attacks mainly by the FDLR (Hutu rebels),” the agency said. “Rape and looting by all sides, including government forces, has also been reported. According to recent reports, 100,000 people have already fled their homes in South Kivu, even before the new offensive has started. Aid agencies are planning for the possible displacement of a further 400,000 people in South Kivu.”.
Oxfam said any military action should follow international law and ensure that risks to civilians were kept to an absolute minimum. It called for appropriate sanctions for any violations of international humanitarian law. Troops from Congo and neighbouring Rwanda launched a joint operation in January against the Rwandan Hutu rebels, whose presence in eastern Congo has been a major source of regional tension and instability for 15 years.
After Rwandan forces pulled out a month later, the Hutu rebels stepped up reprisals against civilians and regained territory they lost during the offensive. The 17,000-strong UN force – already one of the UN’s biggest operations – has requested a temporary increase of 3,000 troops and police to help it deal with renewed fighting in the area.
The offensive had caused “untold death and suffering that continues to this day”, said Marcel Stoessel, the head of Oxfam in the DRC. “By any yardstick it has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored. The UN force’s top priority in Congo must be to protect the lives of innocent civilians. The UN needs to be aware of the full implications of continuing to support military action in the present circumstances.”