United Nations emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland said on Wednesday that over the last six years the toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo's amounted to "one tsunami every six months" - a reference to the December disaster which left about 300,000 people dead or missing in Asia.

 

"In terms of the human lives lost ... this is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today and it is beyond belief that the world is not paying more attention," he told a news conference.

Egeland was speaking during a visit to Geneva for talks with UN and other relief workers on improving the global humanitarian aid system.
   
Complex conflict

 

Asked if too much emphasis was being put on Darfur by the international community, and especially big Western powers, Egeland said: "The amount of focus on Darfur is correct, but there is too little on [eastern] Congo." 
    

Egeland said the problems in eastern Congo arose because of the complexity and variety of the fighting groups there, which included regular soldiers, militias and criminal groups.
   

Among the fighters in eastern Congo are ethnic Hutus who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide there - many of them accused of involvement in the violence in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were killed.

The United Nations has mounted a major relief operation in the region, where Egeland said some three million civilians buffeted by the conflict are in need of help to survive, and this week gave militia fighters two weeks to disarm.

 

'Decapitations'

 

Meanwhile, in a report released on Wednesday the United Nations said that militiamen in eastern Congo have kidnapped hundreds of civilians from rival ethnic groups, decapitating some, torturing others and forcing the rest to work as porters or sex slaves.

 

"Several witnesses reported cases of mutilation followed by death or decapitation," the world body said in a report after gathering testimonies from survivors for nearly a year near Congo's northeastern border with Uganda.
   

"Vital organs were said to have been cut off and used as magic charms. There were also reports that [ethnic] Hema children were thrown on arrows stuck into the ground," the report said.
   

"In terms of the human lives lost ... this is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today and it is beyond belief that the world is not paying more attention"

Jan Egeland,
UN Emergency Relief Coordinator

Groups of between three and six militiamen would creep up at night on fisherman on Lake Albert, which separates Congo and Uganda.

 

Some of their victims would be forced to swim until they were so exhausted they drowned, the report said.


The UN mission in Democratic Republic of Congo said its human-rights experts had interviewed 120 people who managed to escape the attacks by the FRPI militia, one of five ethnic armed groups operating in Congo's northeastern Ituri district.
   

The militia hails from the Ngiti tribe, which is close to the Lendu ethnic group - the Hema's main rivals in Ituri. "The victims ... number in the hundreds," the report said.
   

"Those that were kidnapped have been forced to work as fishermen, porters of goods and domestic workers. Women have been used as sex slaves. Most of the Hema and [allied] Gegere victims were mutilated and summarily executed."

UN peacekeepers and investigators accompanied by a local prosecutor and police officers went to one of the slave camps where civilians were being held in December, arrested seven presumed militia members and seized weapons and ammunition. A case has since be opened against the men.
   

Civil war

 

Witnesses at the camp told UN officials that a "significant" number of people were being held in a nearby village but, due to swampy conditions, the UN was unable to use its helicopters to access them.

The fighting in northeastern Congo has damaged efforts by the former Belgian colony to recover from a wider five-year war. 


"Vital organs were
said to have been cut off and used as magic charms. There were also reports that [ethnic] Hema children were thrown on arrows stuck into the ground"

UN report on Eastern Congo fighting

The Ituri conflict pits various ethnic based militias against each other although economic interests often override tribal loyalties as armed groups share out the proceeds of war.
   

The UN welcomed the arrest of one of the militia leaders this month but warned that human rights abuses were continuing.
   

"The main aim of these kidnappings is to profit from the fishing trade by using the victims as forced labour and, at the same time, eliminating the Hema and Gegere that they find in the boats," the report said.
   

More than 60,000 people have died in militia fighting and attacks on civilians in Ituri since 1999.
   

Despite the presence of nearly 5000 peacekeepers, much of the district is still ruled by regional commanders and violence during the last two months alone has killed several hundred people and displaced about 100,000 others.