NAIROBI (AlertNet) – As East African leaders meet in Uganda to discuss the escalating violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Oxfam has warned that hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Oxfam’s local partners said violence, displacement and child recruitment have increased dramatically in Congo’s mineral-rich North and South Kivu provinces, long a tinderbox of regional ethnic and political tensions, since the formation of the M23 rebel group in April.

“Vast swathes of the east have descended into chaos with no government or security presence. People have been abandoned to killing, rape, looting and extortion,” Oxfam’s associate country director Elodie Martel said in a statement.

“They are fleeing for their lives and very little is being done to help.”

More than 470,000 people have fled their homes in the past four months, with 420,000 displaced internally and 51,000 crossing into Uganda and Rwanda as refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

For the first time since the end of 2009, the number of displaced within Congo is now more than 2 million, Oxfam said.

Aid agencies cannot access many of the displaced because of the ongoing insecurity.

Regional leaders of 11 African countries are holding an International Conference of the Great Lakes Region from Aug. 7 to 8. The meeting is expected to decide to set up an international peacekeeping force to restore stability to the region.

The United Nations already has more than 17,000 troops in Congo as part of its peacekeeping mission. But the force is stretched thin across a nation the size of Western Europe and already struggles to fulfil its mandate of protecting civilians.

U.N. helicopter gunships frequently back up outgunned government forces but even that firepower failed to prevent rebels from taking several towns in July.

No details have been given on the new peacekeeping plan but, in theory, the force would target all rebels, including the anti-Kinshasa M23 and Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) Kigali says are a threat.  Read more…