Sunday, February 22, 2009

Congo, Somalia Conflicts Make 350,000 New Refugees

Congo, Somalia Conflicts Make 350,000 New Refugees

By Frank Nyakairu

Enduring conflicts in east and central Africa have produced some 350,000 new refugees since October, worsening an already dire humanitarian situation, aid agencies say.

The region already hosts the continent's biggest number of refugees, but conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia are forcing many more from their homes.

"Multiple conflicts in the region have worsened the refugee situation in the region," said Hassan Yusuf, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in Kenya.

"We have seen the worst in recent months, seeing thousands of new refugees both internally and externally," he said.

Somalia, the Horn of African country plagued by war since 1991 has the highest numbers of internal and external displacements, uprooted since Islamist insurgents started fighting the Western-backed government more than two years ago.

The crisis considered most acute and edging toward a humanitarian catastrophe is the displacement hundreds of thousands of Congolese by Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and Congolese Tutsi rebels.

Since December at least 150,000 Congolese refugees have been uprooted by insurgency in the volatile northeast and forced to seek refugee in neighboring Southern Sudan and Uganda.

"The latest group of refugees and most affected is in Orientale Province of Congo, where over 150,000 people have been forced to flee LRA attacks and for the first time 15,000 of those fleeing to southern Sudan," said Hassan.

A joint military offensive by Uganda, Congolese and Sudanese forces in December was followed by indiscriminate attacks on civilians by highly mobile remnants of the LRA in the region.

The LRA, whose leadership is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has fought for more than two decades to replace Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government with one based on the Ten Biblical commandments.

In Congo's South and North Kivu regions, a conflict between government forces and Congolese Tutsi rebels has forced thousands to flee into neighboring Uganda.

"In Uganda, the recent influx of 47,000 Congolese refugees is seen as more sustained than previous influxes. This is considered an acute humanitarian situation," said Kristen Knutson, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Uganda.

A recent offensive in Congo against Hutu rebels responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide, has also forced 6,000 refugees into enter Uganda.

Somalia, however, has the highest number of internal refugees. Aid workers put the number at 1.3 million, with 160,000 new internal refugees in the past four months.

"This is the highest it has ever been and it has been worsened by strict border controls on the Ethiopian and the Kenyan sides because refugees cannot leave the country," said UNHCR's Hassan.

But despite controls, remote, porous borders mean Kenya has seen an influx of up to 6,300 Somali refugees in January alone.

In Ethiopia, up to 150 refugees daily have been crossing from the troubled country since January. In total, 100,000 Somalis have sought refugee outside their country since January, according to the UNHCR.

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