Tens of thousands of people have crossed from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) into neighbouring Uganda to flee an escalation of fighting in the country.
Conflict between armed groups, the Congolese army, and peacekeepers have worsened in recent months. Congolese forces and UN peacekeepers are carrying out an operation against rebels from the M23 group, after the UN accused M23 of targeting them.
At least 170,000 civilians have been displaced since fighting escalated last November, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Last week, UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo told journalists that 25,000 people had crossed the border to neighbouring Uganda since March 28th. While trying to flee, people are being exposed to constant violence, including the risk of rape, Ms Mantoo said. Children are being separated from their families. The displaced are struggling to find food, shelter and clean water.
Uganda, an east African country of about 45 million people, already hosts more than 1.5 million refugees.
The renewed conflict in eastern DRC also comes amid increased tension between its government and Rwanda.
On Saturday, Rwanda said rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda were holding two of its soldiers captive in the DRC, after they were kidnapped while on patrol. They have accused Congolese authorities of backing the rebel group.
Rwanda has accused Congolese fighters of firing rockets into Rwandan territory. In February, president Paul Kagame threatened to deploy troops into Congolese territory without its government’s approval.
DRC previously accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebel group, which is primarily made up of Congolese Tutsis and was dormant for almost a decade before its latest re-emergence, according to analysts. The Congolese government suspended flights from Rwanda’s national carrier, RwandAir, and summoned the country’s ambassador. Rwanda has denied involvement.
More than 120 armed groups are active in eastern DRC, where millions of people are said to have been killed since the late 1990s.
According to the Kivu Security Tracker, at least 27 civilians were murdered on Saturday in the Beni region of North Kivu. A Congolese military spokesman told Agence France-Presse that Islamic militant group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) were suspected of carrying out the attack, which took place in a village called Beu Manyama. Islamic State in Iraq and Syria call the ADF their Central African affiliate.
Two weeks ago Ugandan military commander Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of long-serving president Yoweri Museveni, announced that Uganda would pull its troops from the DRC this month, unless both countries’ presidents decided to renew the six-month mandate for an ongoing operation against the ADF.
Uganda’s deployment of about 1,700 soldiers to eastern DRC late last year was said to be the largest foreign intervention in the country in more than a decade, apart from the ongoing UN peacekeeping mission, Monusco.
The International Crisis Group, a think tank that carries out research and analysis on global crises, warned that Congolese president Félix Tshisekedi may have opened a “Pandora’s box”, with foreign interventions “causing fresh upheaval in a country that has suffered greatly from regional rivalries”.
According to the International Crisis Group, Burundian forces have also entered the DRC to fight against RED-Tabara, a Burundian rebel group.