KINSHASA, CONGO — Thousands of civilians fleeing fighting in northeastern Congo streamed into Uganda on Thursday, most after walking several days.
The U.N. refugee agency said 13,000 refugees had crossed the border near Ishasha in 48 hours -- 10,000 on Thursday alone. Most were from villages in the Rutshuru district of the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.
"The rebels attacked my village. They killed all the women, even pregnant women," said a 20-year-old refugee, Jean, in comments cited by refugee officials seeking to transport civilians to a safe settlement in Uganda far from the border.
Humanitarian agencies, struggling to help a quarter of a million civilians displaced by fighting since August in northeastern Congo, are worried that a United Nations plan to send troop reinforcements may come too late to prevent more bloodshed.
The U.N. Security Council has approved an increase in the stretched U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo from 17,000 to slightly more than 20,000 to try to end fighting between Tutsi rebels and government forces and their militia allies.
But it could take months for the reinforcements to be mustered and arrive.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay issued a statement calling for a concerted international push to establish peace in Congo, formerly known as Zaire, and stop atrocities against those caught up in the fighting, especially women.
"Recent reports suggest an escalation of sexual violence in its most brutal forms, committed by all sides in the conflict, including soldiers belonging to the national army," she said ahead of the U.N. Human Rights Council's emergency session on Congo, scheduled for today in Geneva.
She also suggested that illicit trade in Congo's mineral riches may be fueling the continued fighting, saying, "This has to be exposed and comprehensively addressed."
In The Hague, meanwhile, two Congolese warlords, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, pleaded not guilty Thursday at the International Criminal Court to charges of murder, rape and using child soldiers during a deadly attack on a village in 2003.