The United Nations’ most powerful body is close to approving 3,000 more peacekeeping troops for war-torn areas of eastern Congo, diplomats said today.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called for an immediate ceasefire to urgently help “at least 100,000 refugees” cut off by fighting in rebel-held areas north of Goma in eastern Congo.
“For the 100,000 people whose lifeline has been cut off, I am trying to explore all the possibilities available within UN agencies and other human rights groups,” Mr Ban said.
“I urgently call for an immediate ceasefire in these areas to allow humanitarian assistance to reach many thousands of displaced persons.”
After a two-hour closed-door meeting late last night, members of the 15-nation UN Security Council and the Congolese ambassador said there was broad agreement for beefing up the 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Congo, known as Monuc.
“I would say a large number of members in the council believe that Monuc has to be strengthened,” Panamanian ambassador Ricardo Alberto Arias said.
Congo ambassador Ileka Atoki said “the idea is more or less approved”, but the council was waiting for another report on Congo next week from Mr Ban, who requested the 3,000 additional troops more than a month ago to protect civilians.
About 250,000 people had been displaced by fighting in eastern Congo, including those north of Goma, the provincial capital, Mr Ban said.
“But at least 100,000 refugees are cut off in areas north of the city, chiefly around Rutshuru and East Masisi,” he said.
“Because of the ongoing fighting, these people have received virtually no assistance. Their situation has grown increasingly desperate.”
Ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of at least 500,000 Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda has fuelled the fighting.
Rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda fought their way in late August towards Goma, then stopped just outside the city and declared a ceasefire two weeks ago.
Nkunda says he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu militants who participated in the genocide before escaping to Congo.
Since then resentment has built up among some of Congo’s civilians that the UN force – with just 9,300 troops for sprawling North Kivu province’s 10 million inhabitants – did little to prevent the rebels’ advance.
Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it was “impossible to overstate the importance and devastating consequences” for civilians if the security council did not quickly approve sending more troops.
Mr Ban returned from a summit in Nairobi last week that had called on all armed groups in the North Kivu province to observe an immediate ceasefire.
Since the Nairobi meeting, which Nkunda did not attend, Mr Ban said he had also met to discuss options with representatives of the US, France, Britain, Netherlands, Canada, Japan, African Union and European Union.
But now the UN chief says he is most worried about the plight of the refugees and reports of the use of child soldiers in areas north of Goma.
“Despite the Nairobi declaration, there are continued reports of sporadic fighting,” Mr Ban said. “I am very concerned by reports of targeted killings of civilians, looting and rape.”
He warned that “when the laws of war are violated, personal criminal responsibility may ensue, particularly for those in positions of command and control”.
A UN mission has been investigating reports of massacres, including a large number of civilians targeted. It visited 11 burial sites that witnesses said contained 26 bodies of combatants and civilians, Mr Ban’s spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said.
Many of the killings were thought to be reprisals against those deemed to have collaborated with the government.
Juliette Prodhan, an Oxfam aid worker based in Goma, told reporters by teleconference that “we haven’t been able to reach all the populations we need to reach” and some refugees had been without water for a week.
“There’s utter fear among the population,” she said. “These are people who have suffered an immense amount of grief.”