Rebels have pushed thousands of displaced people from refugee camps in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, while the government promised to punish soldiers who went on a looting spree Tuesday, the UN said.
Displaced people have taken refuge in squalor
The displaced people had been living in a temporary camp near the UN Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) base at Kiwanja, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Goma, after having been caught in the middle of heavy clashes between rebel forces led by Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda and pro-government Mai Mai militias.
"MONUC has noticed since yesterday (Tuesday) evening that the vast majority of displaced who were sheltering around the base at Kiwanja have left their temporary camp," MONUC spokeswoman Sylvie Van Der Wildenberg said.
"We have strong fears that these people have been forced to go back (to their homes)," she said, adding that MONUC had reports "indicating that the (rebels) told them to leave the area."
"If that's the case, that would constitute a serious violation of international law," she said.
Nkunda's forces captured Kiwanja on Nov. 5 and began sweeping the population for lingering Mai Mai troops who they believed were hiding among the people.
Human Rights Watch said this week that at least 50 civilians were killed in the smoke out.
Charges of violence on both sides
The UN has been powerless to stop rebel forces
To add to the civilians' woes, some have also been targeted by government forces, the UN said.
MONUC troops said Tuesday that government soldiers looted from civilians in the Kanyabayonga area, 175 kilometers north of the Nord-Kivu regional capital Goma, as they retreated from a rumored rebel advance. The troops were also accused of raping women.
Kinshasa pledged on Wednesday to punish the troops involved in the reported crimes.
"Whoever committed acts of violence will be punished," government spokesman Lambert Mende told news agency AFP.
The violence is also said to have spread to the towns of Kaina and Kirumba further north and only subsided when senior officers in the Armed Forces of the DR Congo took measures to restrain their troops.
With thousands of Congolese being pushed from camp to camp by the sporadic outbreaks of violence, many were not gaining access to emergency aid, humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) warned.
The World Food Program (WFP) has provided food to the displaced living in refugee camps around Goma but the poor security situation has prevented the delivery of aid to those stranded behind rebel lines.
The Red Cross has been distributing aid to displaced people
"There are huge unmet needs," Erna van Goor, head of MSF's mission in Goma, told German news agency DPA. "We are concerned about the sheer size of this situation."
The WFP said it distributed emergency rations this week to 140,000 people living in six camps around Goma, including the largest camp at Kibati, just north of the city.
Now the agency is planning to penetrate rebel lines to Rutshuru and Kiwanja, two of the towns seized by the rebels in its offensive, later this week. However, it has no clear idea of the scale of the task awaiting it.
"It is difficult to tell how many people there are because there has been so much movement, but we know there were 60,000 displaced living in camps in the area (before the rebel advance)," Marcus Prior, a WFP spokesman in Nairobi, told DPA.
Cholera has also broken out among the displaced, although MSF said it was so far managing to treat the majority of those suffering from the disease.
Mission head calls for more UN troops
Civilians have been caught in the middle of heavy clashes since rebel forces led by general Nkunda began a major offensive over two weeks ago, routing the Congolese army.
Aid agencies say that renewed fighting between Nkunda's National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and government forces has displaced a total of 250,000 people since late August.
Many of the refugees caught up in the fierce fighting of the last two weeks were forced to flee without even basic supplies such as blankets and are now caught outside in the rainy season.
The 17,000-strong MONUC force in DR Congo has warned it is overstretched and undermanned. India and Pakistan have contributed the two largest military contingents to the mission.
With only 5,400 peacekeepers in Nord-Kivu province, MONUC head Alan Doss called in October for an additional 3,000 troops, a plea that has so far gone unanswered.