45,000 people die a month in Congo

Updated: 2008-01-23 10:08

DAKAR, Senegal -- Some 45,000 people die each month in Congo as the world's deadliest humanitarian crisis continues unabated despite five years of relative calm in the Central African nation, according to a report.

DRC government soldiers stand at the back of a jeep in Sake, in 2007. Rival sides in a bitter conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo inched closer to a settlement but delayed the closure of a peace conference, organisers said Tuesday. [Agencies]

The figures cast a shadow over ongoing peace negotiations between warlords and the government in the volatile east. The groups hoped to reach a peace deal on Wednesday, a spokesman for the talks said.

The study, released Tuesday, found that life for Congolese is still alarmingly precarious, despite the end of a 1998-2002 conflict that pulled in armies from half a dozen surrounding countries, and the country's first free and fair elections in more than four decades in 2006.

"When war ended in Congo there was the same level of dysfunction without the violence," said Les Roberts, a Columbia University professor who helped conduct the first surveys in Congo with the aid group International Rescue Committee.

Congo's monthly death rate of 2.2 deaths for each 1,000 people -- essentially unchanged from the last survey in 2004 -- is nearly 60 percent higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, according to the study by IRC and Australia's Burnet Institute, which researches epidemiological disease.

The vast majority of deaths were from nonviolent causes, such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia or malnutrition, the report said. Outbreaks of easily treatable diseases like measles and whooping cough have been a major killer of children in Congo, a nation the size of Western Europe.

The group estimates that 5.4 million Congolese died between 1998 and April 2007 because of conflict, most from the rampant disease and food shortages stemming from fighting.

Meanwhile, representatives for the government and warlords were meeting in Goma, Congo, to negotiate a peace deal to end fighting in the east.

The country's hilly eastern region, long the source of turmoil in the country of 66 million, was one of the few to post a decrease in its death rate compared with the previous survey.

Richard Brennan, one of the study's lead authors, said he believed the reduction was related to a beefing-up of U.N. forces in the region and increased funding by humanitarian agencies working to stem the threatening public health disaster. The fighting has forced some 800,000 people to flee their homes in the last year.

On Monday, the government and representatives from armed groups active in eastern Congo had said that they had agreed in principle to the deal to end decades of conflict.

But the plan faltered during discussions over last-minute amendments Tuesday evening, and representatives at the talks said they would reconvene Wednesday to continue negotiations.

"The consultations will continue because there have been disagreements concerning amendments to the text," conference spokesman Sekimonyo Wamagangu said, adding that the groups hoped to reach a compromise Wednesday.

According to a draft agreement made available to reporters, a cease-fire would take effect in eastern Congo immediately upon signing.

The draft also provides for a UN-monitored buffer zone between various armed groups and government forces, the logistics of which would be worked out by a technical committee to be established.

The militia fighters also would be given amnesty from prosecution for insurgency or acts of war, but not for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

"This is the best chance for peace that I have seen for the people of eastern Congo," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has worked on Congo issues for about a decade.

The US government welcomed the progress toward a peace deal Tuesday.

"We're pleased with the agreement," US State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said in Washington. "We'll support the agreement in conjunction with the international community."

Even if the deal is signed, and held to, the statistics point to a tough road ahead.

"It's going to require years of engagement from the Congolese people, the Congolese government and the international community" to reduce deaths, Brennan said.


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