The Allied Democratic Forces rebels attacked Congolese army positions and several neighbourhoods of Beni in the DRC on Saturday and into Sunday, a senior army official told The Associated Press.
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The rebels have killed hundreds of civilians in recent years and are just one of several rebel groups active in the DRC’s far northeast.
Child kidnappings for ransom are a relatively new phenomenon in the North Kivu region, where Beni is located, making exact figures on the issue difficult to find.
At least 215 children were abducted in the province and 34 killed in North Kivu in 2017, according to a child protection group cited by The Guardian.
Angry over this latest attack, Beni residents on Sunday morning carried four of the bodies to the town hall, where police dispersed them with tear gas.
Late last month, Ebola outbreak containment efforts had to be suspended for days in Beni after a deadly rebel attack, deeply complicating work to find and track suspected contacts of infected people.
Since then, many of the new confirmed Ebola cases have been reported in Beni as the rate of new cases overall has more than doubled.
This new attack comes as another armed group shot and killed two medical agents with the DRC army – the first time health workers have been killed by rebels in this Ebola outbreak.
It is a “dark day” for everyone fighting the deadly virus, the DRC health minister said late on Saturday.
Mai Mai rebels surged from the forest and opened fire on the unarmed agents with the army’s rapid intervention medical unit at an entrance to Butembo city, the health ministry said.
The daytime attack appeared premeditated, with civilians present left unharmed, the statement said. The medical agents had been placed in “dangerous zones” to assist national border health officials.
Aid under fire
Confirmed Ebola cases have now reached 200, including 117 deaths. Aid groups have expressed alarm after the insecurity and sometimes hostile community resistance led the rate of new cases to more than double this month.
Health workers in this outbreak, declared on August 1, have described hearing gunshots daily, operating under the armed escort of UN peacekeepers or Congolese security forces and having to end work by sundown to lower the risk of attack.
The DRC health ministry has reported “numerous aggressions” against health workers, and early this month two Red Cross volunteers were severely injured in a confrontation with wary community members in a region traumatised by decades of fighting and facing an Ebola outbreak for the first time.
“Health agents are not a target for armed groups,” Health Minister Oly Ilunga said. “Our agents will continue to go into the field each day to fulfil the mission entrusted to them. They are true heroes and we will continue to take all necessary measures so that they can do their job safely.”
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization said it was “deeply concerned” by the outbreak but that it does not yet warrant being declared a global emergency.
An outbreak must be “an extraordinary event” that might cross borders, requiring a coordinated response. Confirmed cases have been found near the heavily travelled border with Uganda.
In the latest sign of the rumours that pose another serious challenge to containing the deadly virus, the health ministry said 22 youth in Butembo dug up the body of an Ebola victim and opened the body bag, “wanting to verify that no organs had been taken from the body by health workers”.
They ended up touching the highly infectious bodily fluids, the ministry said. “The next day, they agreed to be vaccinated,” joining the more than 20,000 people who have received vaccinations so far.