The UN has expressed shock at the sight of thousands of civilians fleeing a rebel advance in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and appealed for access to help those caught up in the violence.
In what would be a major first for its peacekeeping operations, the UN said on Friday it was considering using drones to monitor the fighting between the military and the M23 rebels.
Meanwhile, regional leaders were heading for Kampala for a summit yesterday on the latest crisis in the mineral-rich region.
The rebels captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, on Tuesday before taking the key town of Sake 20km to the west on Wednesday, forcing thousands more people to take flight.
A UN source said the rebels appeared to have halted just south of Sake after battles with government forces and an allied local militia.
“I have been shocked by the pictures I have seen of the ordinary women, men and children fleeing the violence in and around Goma,” UN deputy secretary for humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos said in a statement.
The conflict was preventing aid workers from delivering even the most basic aid in already badly hit areas, she added.
The UN refugee agency warned that fighting had blocked access to all but one of the 31 camps for displaced people in North Kivu. Province
“There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, said Thierry Goffeau, the head of the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it had counted about 80 wounded in just two Goma hospitals on Wednesday and Thursday.
Red Cross officials expressed their fears for the fate of civilians outside Goma.
“The front line is shifting, and new communities are now directly affected by the conflict,” said Frederic Boyer, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Goma.
UN figures show about 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 newly displaced between July and September.
The DR Congo’s army has proved unable to contain the rebellion since it erupted in April. This week, UN peacekeepers deployed attack helicopters in a vain attempt to halt the rebel advance.
UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the UN was considering using drones to monitor the fighting.
“Of course, we would do this carefully, in full cooperation with the government of the DR Congo,” Dwyer said.
Diplomats said peacekeeping chiefs had been in contact with the governments of DR Congo and of Rwanda about the move, but it is a precedent that other UN members might oppose. The UN is also considering bringing in extra troops for the 17,500-strong MONUSCO peacekeeping mission.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is to recommend options to the Security Council soon.
France has been among those calling for MONUSCO’s operational mandate to be toughened so it can take a harder line against the rebels.
However, UN officials say the peacekeepers, who come from nearly 50 countries, must not replace a national army.
Among the leaders expected at yesterday’s summit in Kampala were DR Congo President Joseph Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, all key players in the unfolding conflict.
A report by UN experts has accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23 — a charge both countries vehemently deny.