(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

At least 15,000 IDPs in interior; 50,000 IDPs in capital

At least 15,000 people remained displaced in Pool region and perhaps 50,000 in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo (ROC) on Wednesday as a result of panic provoked by continued fighting in various localities of the interior of Pool region and the Kinsoundi neighbourhood of Brazzaville, UN agencies reported on Thursday. They cautioned, however, that as most displacement sites cannot be reached due to insecurity, these numbers may be higher.

"Despite high-level liaison by the UN, it has remained very difficult to obtain reliable information in particular on security conditions and secure access to populations in need of humanitarian assistance," UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator William Paton told IRIN.

In Brazzaville, tens of thousands fled the southern parts of the city (Bacongo, Kinsoundi, Makelekele) on Wednesday night following low-grade bombing in Kinsoundi during the afternoon. Although people were reported to be returning in large numbers on Thursday, the population in Kinsoundi remained trapped, according to humanitarian sources, because the army is restricting movement in and out of the area.

"While the displaced are currently finding refuge within their extended families, this is creating a significant burden on populations already living, for the most part, with the bare minimum," Paton stated. "It is a concern that families may not be able to absorb the displaced for a prolonged period of time."

Petrol is reportedly available in the capital, but in very limited quantities, with long queues at the city's fuel stations. Prices of local produce (fruits, manioc, vegetables) have increased, in some cases almost doubling. Numerous incidents of looting have been reported, and check points were set up throughout Brazzaville on Wednesday night by army, police, special forces and militias.

Although Paton noted that "considerable efforts have been made by authorities to assure people that the situation is under control," the UN security management team has recommended that all missions to Brazzaville be suspended until further notice.

Humanitarian groups, meanwhile, expressed concern that the Congolese government has adopted an aggressive approach to the current situation, favouring vigorous pursuit of military solutions rather than negotiations; the arrival of a special unit of Angolan soldiers in Pool region and Brazzaville has caused further concern among some of these organisations.

Military spokesman Col Jean-Robert Obargui was quoted as telling the Associated Press: "We have decided to restore order in Pool, whatever the price."

In a statement on Wednesday, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Kenzo Oshima expressed "alarm at reports of the worsening humanitarian situation" in ROC. He appealed to all parties "to respect humanitarian principles, in particular those that provide for the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and allow humanitarian workers access to those in need." Oshima reported that assessment teams are being dispatched to those areas where access is possible to ascertain the numbers and conditions of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), while in Brazzaville, UN agencies are setting up inter-agency teams to devise a coordinated response to growing humanitarian needs.

France, the former colonial ruler of Congo-Brazzaville, issued a statement on Thursday in which it expressed its concern over the situation - only a few weeks after the peaceful election on 10 March of Denis Sassou-Nguesso as president, which, it said, "demonstrated the desire for peace of the Congolese people". France hoped that the measures taken by the Congolese authorities would enable the situation to be brought to a peaceful conclusion.

Hostilities erupted in ROC at the end of March, when several government military positions in Pool region were reportedly attacked by so-called "Ninja" militias, according to official sources. Ninja representatives have countered that the clashes were provoked when they discovered government plans to arrest their leader, the Rev Frederic Bitsangou (alias Ntoumi).

The ROC government claims that the Kingouari section of Makelekele is an area with a high concentration of former Ninja militiamen who were demobilised following the peace agreements of 1999, which effectively brought years of repeated civil wars to a conclusion.

During the afternoon of Tuesday 9 April, Brazzaville police launched a sweep of these southern neighbourhoods in search of illegal arms and former Ninjas, whom they feared could be awaiting a signal from Ntoumi to launch an offensive in the capital. Shots were at some point fired by the police - "harmless warning shots", according to officials - which led to widespread panic among an urban population already unnerved by reports of extensive rebel activity in interior regions west and northwest of the capital.

Last month, Col Michel Ngakala, the High Commissioner for the Reintegration of Ex-Combatants in ROC, accused Ntoumi of opposing the demobilisation of his men and thereby constituting a threat to peace. Although Ntoumi has expressed willingness to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) for his men to be reintegrated, negotiations between him and the government have thus far been unsuccessful.

Following 1999's ceasefire agreements, the process of demobilising an estimated total of 25,000 militia fighters has been underway in ROC. It includes members of the Cobras (loyal to Sassou-Nguesso), the Cocoyes (loyal to former President Pascal Lissouba), and the Ninjas (loyal to former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas).

Since the end of the civil war, many former militiamen have surrendered their weapons in exchange for civilian jobs. Through the UNDP/IOM programme for the "Reintegration of Ex-Combatants and Collection of Light Weapons", which has been operating since November 2000, more than 7,500 ex-combatants have been assisted in the transition to civilian life through funds and training to start small businesses. Some 1,800 have been reintegrated by the government, primarily into the army. The initiative has also collected and destroyed 12,000 small arms.

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