U.N. Congo offensive seen causing civilian deaths

By Frank Nyakairu

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A joint military offensive by United Nations peacekeeping forces and the Congolese army is causing "untold death and suffering" among civilians, international aid agency Oxfam said Wednesday.

The U.N. mission in Congo, is providing logistical and military support for the army's efforts to combat a rebel resurgence in North Kivu. It is also backing the army as it prepares to extend operations into neighbouring South Kivu.

"The offensive against the FDLR (Rwandan Hutu rebels) began a spiral of violence against civilians which has forced 250,000 to flee their homes and caused untold death and suffering that continues to this day." said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in Kinshasa.

The FDLR rebels are accused of carrying out the 1994 Rwanda genocide that killed nearly one million people.

Congo's army and troops from neighbouring Rwanda launched a joint operation in January against the Rwandan Hutu rebels, who are seen as a root cause of 15 years of festering conflict in eastern Congo.

But following a Rwandan pullout a month later, the mainly Hutu rebels have stepped up reprisals against civilians and re-taken ground they lost during the offensive.

The 17,000-strong U.N. force has requested a temporary increase of 3,000 troops and police to help it deal with renewed fighting in the area.

"VERY DELICATE SITUATION"

"We are aware of the very delicate situation regarding the protection of civilians," Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Paul Dietrich, military spokesman for the force, told Reuters.

"We are putting a lot of efforts into joint planning and protection. That is why we can see some delays," he added.

The U.N. force and the Congolese army are preparing to expand operations against the FDLR into neighbouring South Kivu, and aid agencies fear this could worsen a humanitarian disaster in the east where more than a million people have fled fighting since late 2006.

According to Oxfam, 100,000 people have already fled their homes in South Kivu, even before the new offensive.

"By any yardstick it has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored. The U.N. force's top priority in Congo must be to protect the lives of innocent civilians.

"The U.N. needs to be aware of the full implications of continuing to support military action in the present circumstances," said Stoessel.

Human rights groups have also called on the United Nations Security Council to improve rights protection and justice in Africa conflict hotspots.

The Security Council is due to visit Liberia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia later this month.

Human Rights Watch urged the Council to "focus on the protection of civilians, justice, and human rights" in Congo.

(Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis in Dakar)

Article Published: 13/05/2009