UN says thousands flee Congo violence, seek asylum in Uganda

People coming from Congo wash their hands with chlorinated water to prevent the spread of infection, at the Mpondwe border crossing with Congo, in western Uganda Friday, June 14, 2019. In Uganda, health workers had long prepared in case the Ebola virus got past the screening conducted at border posts with Congo and earlier this week it did, when a family exposed to Ebola while visiting Congo returned home on an unguarded footpath. (AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi)

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — About 7,500 Congolese fleeing violence have arrived in Uganda since the beginning of June, the United Nations refugee agency said Tuesday, urging the international community to give more toward humanitarian efforts.

People are leaving Congo at a rate of 311 a day, adding pressure on Uganda’s already overstretched facilities, said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic in Geneva. The situation is made worse because Congo is battling an outbreak of Ebola and there are fears the refugees could be carrying the deadly virus.

The refugees are running away from clashes between two ethnic groups — the Hema and the Lendu — in Congo’s northeast Ituri province, an area long plagued by violence and lawlessness.

More than 160 people have been killed in two weeks of the violence in several villages of Ituri, according to the local governor.

Recent arrivals from Congo “speak of extreme brutality. Armed groups are said to be attacking villages, torching and looting houses, and killing men, women and children,” Mahecic said in a statement.

Uganda has long said it keeps its doors open to all refugees.

Most Congolese are fleeing via Lake Albert from Ituri, where an estimated 300,000 people have been displaced since early June, according to Mahecic.

A refugee reception center in Uganda is currently home to 4,600 new arrivals, 1,600 more than its maximum intended capacity, he said, noting that “the pace of new arrivals means needs far outstrip what humanitarians are able to deliver.”

The violence has been taking place in a remote area of Congo near South Sudan and Uganda where the U.N. says there is limited access for humanitarians. Thousands of people are said to be sleeping in the open and without any kind of food aid.

Authorities believe the perpetrators were militia fighters from the Lendu community. Congo’s military believes they are linked to Mathieu Ngudjolo, who was acquitted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court in 2012.

Untold thousands of people lost their lives in conflicts between Lendu and Hema communities between 1999 and 2004, according to experts.

U.N. peacekeepers were dispatched to Congo to try to maintain order and remain in the region combatting various rebel groups. New unrest was seen in 2017 and 2018.

Congo has one of the world’s largest numbers of displaced people, with some 4.5 million having fled various conflicts across the vast central African nation.

Another part of eastern Congo, North Kivu, faces a stubborn Ebola epidemic. Health workers there have been repeatedly attacked, hampering efforts to contain the spread of the viral disease that has killed over 1,400 people since August. Earlier this month a family crossed the border to Uganda and two subsequently died of Ebola.

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