The Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is deliberately targeting civilians and hindering humanitarian access in Haut-Uélé, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has said.
"It is clear [that] not much attention is being given to civilian protection," Hakim Chkam, an MSF field coordinator in Haut-Uélé, Orientale Province, said. "There is a total lack of civilian protection."
The rebels have become particularly vicious over the past two months after a joint military offensive to dislodge them. They have been active in an area which lies along the DRC border with Uganda and the Central African Republic.
"Women who come to the health centres to give birth leave immediately after delivery, scared of staying longer," Chkam told a news conference in Nairobi on 4 February.
"The LRA is deliberately and systematically targeting civilians in its attacks. They [the LRA] are using a scorched earth policy… Last week a woman was attacked while going to her field in an area where FARDC [national army] forces have been deployed."
100,000 displaced since Christmas
At least 900 people have been killed and a further 100,000 displaced in attacks since Christmas, he said. Children have also been abducted - some during a vaccination campaign.
"About 30 percent of the displaced have had to flee LRA attacks more than once," Chkam added. There have been two recent waves of LRA attacks - the first from August to December 2008 in which there were six reported attacks, and the second from 25 December to date.
"The second wave has been more lethal with an attack per day on average," Chkam said. The attacks coincided with the deployment of FARDC (Congolese army) troops to some of the affected areas.
"Further massacres are likely... MONUC [the UN Mission in the DRC] must therefore take up its responsibilities, and can no longer continue to be so invisible to the inhabitants of Haut-Uélé when they are being systematically attacked," said Marc Poncin, MSF’s operational manager for DRC, in a statement.
MONUC rejects MSF stance
MONUC, however, said the MSF view that MONUC did not provide protection to the civilian population was biased.
"The report is unfair. I do not think that it is accurate," said MONUC military spokesman Lt-Col Jean-Paul Dietrich. "It does not give the full picture of all that MONUC is doing."
MONUC was assisting in the deployment of Congolese troops and providing food and transport. "We provide the Congolese troops with supplies two to four [times] per week. Without that support I do not know if the Congolese army would have been able to succeed in providing security in the LRA affected villages," the spokesman told IRIN.
"We have also indirectly contributed by offering our base to the Ugandans," he said. MONUC had also set up an air base in Duru to allow planes used in the anti-LRA intervention to land.
MONUC has about 4,000 troops in Ituri and Orientale, with 250 near Dungu town in Haut-Uélé. According to Dietrich, there are plans to set up a rapid intervention force in Haut-Uélé.
Following the military operation by the Ugandan, DRC and Southern Sudanese armies, the LRA has split into smaller groups, which are accused of mass murder, rape and pillage in DRC and Southern Sudan.
Analysts say the intervention, launched on 14 December, had exacerbated civilian hardship. "Protection of vulnerable civilians must become a priority for this operation so that one of the greatest costs of this offensive - those lives lost and communities destroyed by LRA attacks - do not outweigh the benefits," said Julia Spiegel from the Washington-based Enough Project.
"Simply put, protection of those at risk must be paramount in any military effort [in future]."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions