Congo Strife Displaced 155,000, Group Says

From Times Wire Services

Clashes between rebel groups ignoring a cease-fire in northeastern Congo have forced more than 155,000 people to flee their homes in the last month, an aid agency said Saturday.

In the last four days, heavy artillery fire has forced 35,000 people from the town of Makeke toward the city of Beni, according to the aid group Doctors Without Borders.

The exodus -- one of the biggest mass movements in Congo in years -- has left the refugees vulnerable to hunger and disease and attacks by fighters, the group added.

People treated at the agency's health centers in recent weeks have reported combatants roasting people alive, raping women in front of their families and forcing prisoners to eat human flesh.

"The patients we are treating in our clinics tell us really horrible stories," aid worker Nicolas Louis said by satellite telephone from Beni. "I've worked in African war zones for 15 years, and what we are seeing here are among the worst things I've ever seen."

Fighting between rebel factions in the mineral-rich former Zaire, where a four-year war has killed an estimated 2 million people mainly through hunger and disease, has intensified around Beni in the last month.

The clashes have raised fears that a broad Congo peace deal signed in South Africa in December will fail to stem fighting.

Doctors Without Borders said rival rebel groups had fought artillery battles around Makeke on Tuesday, despite the signing of a truce by various rebel factions in the area Monday.

"We fear that in total there might be over 155,000 displaced people in the area between Butembo, Beni, Mambasa and Komanda alone," the group's head of mission, Philippe Hamel, said in a statement, referring to a cluster of towns in the mineral-rich northeast, near the border with Uganda.

In a bid to defuse tensions, the United Nations has asked all sides to meet this week in the eastern city of Kisangani.

Nearly all the foreign troops involved in the war have withdrawn, but fighting has intensified among the main rebel factions, splinter groups and tribal fighters since the pullouts.

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