KINSHASA, Congo – Nearly 5,000 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, have been displaced because of fighting in Congo's North Kivu province, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday.
Clashes between Congo's army and former rebels who joined the army but then left started have continued for days in the Masisi region of North Kivu.
Early in April, several senior military and former members of the CNDP rebel group defected from the army and regrouped as a rebel force. A local official, however, says it has reclaimed several villages in an offensive launched against the rebels.
"We confirm that our military continues to pursue armed military dissidents in the Masisi territory and several villages have been reclaimed," said North Kivu provincial governor Julien Paluku Kahongya. "We want to assure our population that soon everything will return to normal."
But the U.N. says people have still been displaced. Over two days, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees counted at least 2,725 internally displaced Congolese and more than 2,092 refugees who fled the fighting for Rwanda.
"These people are mostly children, women and the elderly," said UNHCR deputy spokesman Simon Lubuku. "Refugees crossed the border of Rwanda, to Nkamira, where UNHCR is distributing nonfood necessities such as blankets."
Those who have been internally displaced have gathered around Goma, mostly in the towns of Mugunga and Keshero, said a statement by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Those in Mugunga are being put up in the classrooms of a school in a church compound, it said.
Many of the officers who defected from the army in April used to be part of the Tutsi-led CNDP rebel movement that swept across large swaths of eastern Congo at the end of 2008 until a peace agreement was signed in January 2009. The rebels were speedily integrated into the national army that became a conglomeration of numerous rebel groups and militias along with mutinous soldiers. Congo endured back-to-back civil and regional wars that erupted in the aftermath of neighboring Rwanda's 1994 genocide and ended in 2002.
The mutinous soldiers are also loyal to notorious ex-warlord Bosco Ntaganda. But Ntaganda, who has been serving in the country's army despite an international indictment on war crimes charges, denied any involvement in the new mutiny.
"I am not involved in what happens here (Masisi), I am an officer in the army of the DRC (Congo) and I obey the orders of my superiors," Ntaganda told a journalist in Goma who works for Deutsche Welle. "My problem is between me and my superiors that I have promised to solve it."
Congo's president in early April called for Ntaganda's arrest, and said he should face a military tribunal in Congo. He said the military doesn't need to hand Ntaganda over to the International Criminal Court.
Ntaganda is accused of using child soldiers for fighting in northeastern Congo from 2002 to 2003. He was first indicted on war crimes charges in 2006 by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.
In the past, Kabila had refused calls to hand over Ntaganda, arguing his cooperation was essential to keeping the peace in the troubled east of the country where numerous local militias and foreign rebels operate.
On Wednesday, North Kivu governor Kahongya also called for the arrest of Ntaganda because of indiscipline.
Congo which has a population of 70 million people, has been plagued by decades of war and its vast forests are rife with militias that have systematically used rape to destroy communities.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kinshasa said in a statement Wednesday that the number of internally displaced persons in Congo has increased by nearly 300,000 people over the first quarter of this year, from 1.7 million on December 31, 2011 to over 2 million by March of this year.