Congolese soldiers involved in an UN-backed offensive against Rwandan rebels attacked villages where thousands of civilians had gathered to receive measles jabs, a humanitarian agency said.
The allegation by French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) adds to growing criticism of UN support for an operation aimed at improving ties between ex-foes Congo and Rwanda but which has cost the lives of hundreds of civilians.
“Thousands of people, and the MSF teams, were trapped in the gunfire. The attack was an unacceptable abuse of humanitarian action to fulfil military objectives,” Luis Encinas, head of the agency’s programmes in Central Africa, said in a statement.
“We feel we were used as bait,” he added of an Oct. 17 army offensive which simultaneously targeted all seven vaccination sites in the Masisi territory of eastern Congo, at the time under rebel control.
The agency said it had decided to pull out its staff from the area before publishing any details of the incident three weeks ago. It added it could not be sure whether there were any casualties because it had suspended its activities there.
The group said it had received guarantees from warring factions that the vaccination programme could go forward, but an army spokesperson questioned whether MSF had contacted the operation’s headquarters in the regional capital Goma.
“As they (the soldiers) didn’t receive any orders from Goma, they did not desist. It’s completely normal. We are in operations,” said the spokesperson.
A military spokesperson for the Congo’s UN mission MONUC said it was unaware of the incident.
The Congolese army launched its offensive against the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in March, receiving support including food, fuel and transport as well as helicopter firepower from the UN.
The presence in eastern Congo of the FDLR rebels is considered to be a root cause of over a decade of conflict and a humanitarian crisis that has killed an estimated 5.4 million people. MONUC’s support for the army has received the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has blamed the army for killing at least 505 Congolese civilians in the offensive and called for MONUC to immediately withdraw its support.
UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy this week said MONUC would suspend support to army units it believes killed at least 62 civilians during the operations, but stressed the move would not affect the UN’s broader support for the army.
Around 1300 FDLR fighters have been disarmed and repatriated to Rwanda since the offensive began, according to the UN during that time, more than 7000 women and girls have been raped and more than 900 000 people forced to flee their homes.
Pic: Congolese troops