RUTSHURU, Congo (Reuters) - France called on Monday for United Nations peacekeepers in east Congo to be tougher in protecting civilians from violence, while aid workers searched for tens of thousands of people who have fled recent fighting.
A U.N. aid convoy which traveled to a rebel-held zone in Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province found refugee camps there empty, their occupants vanished into the bush.
Relief workers escorted by U.N. troops drove to the eastern town of Rutshuru, captured by Tutsi rebels last week. They found camps previously run by U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, and housing at least 50,000 people, leveled and deserted.
“All the camps are empty. They have all left. All the shelters have been destroyed. Nothing remains,” U.N. humanitarian officer Francis Nakwafio Kasai told Reuters.
Last week’s rebel offensive by fighters loyal to renegade Congolese Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda had ended with the declaration of a ceasefire after the insurgents reached the outskirts of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
Both Goma, still in government hands, and rebel-held Rutshuru, 70 km (45 miles) to the north, were calm on Monday.
But aid agencies have called the humanitarian situation triggered by the fighting “catastrophic” and say that tens of thousands of civilians are roaming the hilly countryside unprotected, in need of shelter, food, water and medical care.
“Without improvements in the security situation, people will be forced to continue running,” the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said in a statement.
“Even with today’s widely reported aid delivery, displaced people ... continue to be in urgent need of food, clean water, healthcare and basic items like blankets,” MSF said.
Speaking in Marseille, France after his return from a tour of the Great Lakes region, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo (MONUC) should be more robust against armed groups.
“We need to change things ... We need to be a bit more offensive. I’m not saying we have to wage war, but we need to take part in the defensive operation,” he said on the sidelines of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
He did not rule out the possibility of sending EU troops to help out.
The MONUC force, stretched across a nation the size of Western Europe, has been criticized by Congo’s government and eastern civilians for failing to confront the North Kivu rebels.
The new commander of MONUC, a Spanish general, resigned last week after only seven weeks in the job, citing personal reasons.
To replace him, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday temporarily reappointed a Senegalese general, Babacar Gaye, to return to the job he held from March 2005 until two months ago.
An estimated one million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu by two years of violence that has persisted despite the end of a 1998-2003 war in the vast, former Belgian colony, which is rich in copper, cobalt, gold and diamonds.
Aid workers who saw the empty refugee camps near Ruthsuru said they were trying to establish whether the camps’ occupants were forced out, or fled.
“Until we know their whereabouts, we’re very concerned for their welfare,” said Sean Rafter, a logistics officer with the British medical charity Merlin.
Britain said it was flying 90 tonnes of aid to Goma.
The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said up to 100,000 people in North Kivu, more than half of them children, had fled their homes due to last week’s fighting.
“Cholera and measles epidemics are at serious risk of breaking out,” it said.
Civilians fled not just attacks by Nkunda’s fighters and killings, but also looting and rapes which the U.N. says were committed by retreating Congolese army soldiers.
African and Western governments are seeking to organize a regional summit this week to bring together the presidents of Congo and Rwanda to discuss the conflict on their common border.
The African Union, European Union and United States have recommended that Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame meet possibly at a summit this week in Nairobi.
Nkunda, who says his four-year-old bush rebellion aims to defend Congolese Tutsis, has offered to talk to the government. He accuses Kabila’s army of backing Rwandan Hutu rebels in east Congo who took part in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Congo has accused Tutsi-led Rwanda of backing Nkunda, a charge denied by Kigali.