HUNDREDS of refugees continued to troop into Kisoro district in western Uganda yesterday, fleeing heavy fighting in eastern Congo between rebels and the Congolese armed forces backed by UN peacekeepers.
Ejected from their village of Rugarama, the refugees, many loaded with basic luggage on their heads and with babies strapped to their backs, trekked through the night to the Ugandan side of the border, UN agencies said.
The refugees, most of whom are women and children, are temporarily staying at Busanza on the border. Yesterday they said Rugarama, about 17km from Uganda, had fallen into the hands of Laurent Nkunda’s rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People.
“Just a short while ago I saw about 600 refugees walking into this place and they say many more are on the way here,” UNHCR external relations officer Roberta Russo said in a telephone interview from Kisoro yesterday. “Presently we are talking of over 5,000 refugees.”
For the second successive day yesterday, UN peacekeepers used attack helicopters to try and halt a seemingly relentless rebel advance in eastern Congo.
The UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, MONUC, stepped up direct intervention in the conflict as tens of thousands of civilians were displaced by the fighting which surged early on Wednesday as Nkunda’s troops geared up for an assault on Goma.
The clashes centred on Kibumba around 30km north of Goma, where the UN aircraft fired on rebel positions, stalling their advance on the regional capital, and forcing them to retreat to higher ground.
A top aide to Nkunda told AFP the rebels would take Goma, whose population has been swelled by refugees from the fighting, within three days, despite having their progress slowed by the UN attack.
Government forces are blocking roads to Goma from the north, but pulled out in disarray from a second flashpoint further north. The UN was the only force protecting the key administrative town of Rutshuru, after government forces fled the fighting there, Col Samba Tall told AFP.
On the Ugandan side, exhausted refugees trudged into Kisoro at about 1:00pm, adding onto another 4,000 who fled into the country last week.
Russo said the situation was grave and that UNHCR was contemplating setting up camp in Kisoro to monitor the situation. “The refugees don’t want to go to the transit site. They prefer staying in the villages along the border as they want to be close to their homes in the DRC