- An agreement has been reached to repatriate some 10,000 Congolese refugees from the Central African Republic. The refugees from Congo Kinshasa's north-western province of Equateur are mostly living in the Central Africa capital, Bangui, where their safety during the last years has not always been provided.
The rebels of Jean Pierre Bemba's Front for the Liberation of Congo (FLC) for years have more or less controlled the northern portion of Congo's Equateur province, bordering the Central African Republic. Fighting between the FLC and the Kinshasa government however was rampant between 1998 and 2002, causing ten of thousands of civilians to cross the border to seek refuge.
Mr Bemba meanwhile is part of the new transition government in Kinshasa and Equateur province is now mostly peaceful. Still however, more than 10,000 Congolese refugees are housed by the impoverished Central African Republic. Most refugees are scattered in the Central African capital of Bangui, and in a settlement at Molangue, 80 kilometres to the south-west.
During their stay in the country, the Congolese refugees have experienced a high level of insecurity and political turmoil. In July 2001, thousands of refugees had to be evacuated from Bangui following a coup attempt that caused havoc in the city. Ensuing violence in Bangui had claimed the lives of ten refugees, some of them Congolese.
Later, Congolese refugees witnessed the March 2003 military coup by current Central African leader François Bozizé, which again led to fighting in the streets of Bangui. General Bozizé's coup however somewhat improved the refugees' situation and the new Central African leader distanced himself from rebel leader Bemba.
As the situation in Congo's Equateur province has improved - some hold the province to be calmer than the Central African Republic - refugees for months have been calling on the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to assist them to return home. UNHCR, for its part, needed to reach an agreement between the two governments to start the repatriation process.
UNHCR spokesman Rupert Colville today in Geneva announced that such an agreement - between UNHCR, Congo and the Central African Republic - had now been reach, paving the way for the return of some 10,000 Congolese refugees. The tripartite agreement, signed last Thursday in Kinshasa, "will provide a legal framework for the voluntary repatriation" of these refugees, according to Mr Colville.
The UN agency has already sent out several teams to conduct assessment missions to evaluate the conditions for return in Equateur province, and two repatriation corridors have been mapped out. One will take the refugees from Bangui to Zongo, just across the border in Congo. The second one will cross 200 kilometres into Congo, to the towns of Batanga, Libenga and Gemena.
- UNHCR already has a presence in Zongo, said Mr Colville. To better facilitate and monitor the voluntary repatriation programme, the refugee agency was also proposing the opening of new centres at Libenge and Gemena.
The first UNHCR-assisted convoys from the Central African Republic to Congo Kinshasa are expected to start before the end of 2004, according to the agency's spokesman. He did not set any date for the end of the repatriation operation.
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