Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - Human rights campaigners have warned that another humanitarian disaster looms in Africa, this time in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ordinary people have been caught up in a week of fresh fighting between the army and mutinous soldiers.
About 180,000 people in the country's eastern regions, mostly women and children, have already been displaced, and looting is widespread, according to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.
A particular worry about the new fighting is the fact that the rebellious soldiers are members of a former rebel group, the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), who are now supposed to be part of the country's regular army.
The RCD was a significant force during the five-year Congolese war that ended in 2002.
HRW Africa Division representative Alison Des Forges said the dissidents enjoyed the support of the DRC's eastern neighbor, Rwanda, a nation that only weeks ago was threatening to invade the DRC over accusations it was harboring Rwandan Hutu rebels responsible for a 1994 genocide.
Rwanda has denied that it is supporting the fresh outbreak of fighting, even though United Nations officials charge that weapons and reinforcements have crossed the border from Rwanda into the DRC to assist the rebellious troops.
"Another war in Congo means more civilians will die," said Des Forges. "The international community must use every means available to get the Congolese army to protect civilians instead of causing them to flee their homes."
United Nations humanitarian workers say the civilian flight represents the largest single incident of displacement since the installation of the DRC's transitional coalition government 18 months ago.
"Forcing civilians to flee into the forest has been one of the worst killers in the Congo wars," Des Forges said. "Fleeing civilians are left without adequate food, water or medical aid."
The rights group criticized the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, which has troops in the area and a mandate to protect civilians at imminent risk of death, yet did not quickly intervene.
After a week of fighting, MONUC officials said Tuesday that peacekeepers were headed for the eastern conflict zone to try to keep rebels apart from troops loyal to the government.
Last October, the U.N. Security Council authorized an increase in MONUC troops from 10,000 to nearly 16,000 soldiers, but HRW said the recently arrived troops had not yet made a significant difference in the east.
The International Crisis Group, a think tank, said in a report that the U.N. mission had stood by ineffectively after Rwanda made its recent threats to invade.
The new conflict will be discussed when African heads of states meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 10.
The African Union has warned that the fighting could affect efforts to see the DRC through its process of transition in the war-ravaged country.
AU Commission head Alpha Oumar Konare called on the rebels to submit to military discipline and for all parties to exercise restraint so as not to jeopardize the peace process.
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