- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

KIBATI, Congo

A cholera outbreak in a sprawling refugee camp has spread to eastern Congo’s provincial capital of Goma, increasing fears of an epidemic amid a tense standoff between troops and rebels, officials said.

Cholera cases rose slightly Monday in the towns of Goma and Kibati, with at least 90 known cases and six new admissions overnight. Officials with Doctors Without Borders said the cases they were treating were well-contained. Only four new ones were reported at the group’s clinic in Kibati camp.

But dozens of people have died of cholera in recent weeks elsewhere in eastern Congo. Doctors also fear an epidemic behind rebel lines, where access has been limited by fighting, and rebels have driven tens of thousands of people from camps where outbreaks had been contained.

Also, refugee conditions in many places continue to worsen.

In an unofficial refugee camp set up in Goma for park rangers and their families, some 900 people crowded into plastic tents - some smaller than a sports utility vehicle - and hungrily eyed six 45-pound sacks of beans donated by an international Catholic charity.

Families live less than three feet apart from each other, sharing five makeshift showers and scrabbling in the damp dirt to find space to cook, wash clothes and entertain the children. In the last month, 33 people in the camp have contracted cholera. Sixty have contracted malaria. But families keep trickling in to take shelter from the rebels that now hold the park.

The humanitarian crisis has exploded since rebel leader Laurent Nkunda launched an offensive Aug. 28, stopping his forces at the gates of Goma before declaring a cease-fire. Retreating Congolese troops and rebels sent the population fleeing for their lives, and sporadic clashes have broken out since then.

France failed to secure support Monday from other European Union nations for sending a 1,500-strong EU battle group to eastern Congo to bolster U.N. peacekeepers.

The fighting in eastern Congo is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of at least 500,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda. Mr. Nkunda says he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu militants who participated in the genocide before fleeing to Congo.

A summit of southern African leaders said Sunday that members could, if necessary, send peacekeepers to bolster the U.N. force.

A rebel spokesman said insurgents will fight any soldiers.

“I don’t know if they will come and engage us,” Mr. Nkunda’s spokesman, Babu Amani, said Monday. “We won’t keep silent while they kill us. We will defend ourselves.”

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