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Sunday, 20th May 2018
3:30:31pm

Central Africa

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An official in Democratic Republic of Congo says two United Nations peacekeepers have been released after being held by rebels in the country's southeast.

Tanganyika province vice-governor Ali Omar Simukinje told The Associated Press on Thursday that the peacekeepers from Benin had been held by the Mai Mai militia and were freed on Wednesday.

UN DRC mission spokesperson Florence Marchal confirmed the peacekeepers' return. She said they are currently at the UN peacekeeping base in Nyunzu and will be transferred to Kalemie.

The two went missing on May 11 in Nyunzu territory after 13 peacekeepers went on a mission from Kongolo to Kalemie. 

There were no further details on their release.

Eastern DRC has long had problems caused by a myriad of armed groups that compete for the region's mineral wealth. Kidnappings for ransom are common.

-AP

Rangers said on Tuesday they had stopped tourists entering Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park during investigations into the kidnapping of two Britons there last week.

Gunmen ambushed Robert Jesty, Bethan Davies and their driver in Congo’s volatile eastern borderlands on Friday and released them three days later.

Park ranger Rachel Makissa Baraka, 25, was killed trying to defend them.

“The suspension of tourism is being undertaken as an additional precautionary measure whilst an investigation is undertaken surrounding the recent events,” the park said in a statement. 

It said the suspension would remain in place until June 4.

Eastern Congo has seen successive waves of violence over the past quarter century and was at the epicentre of two wars between 1996 and 2003 that killed millions, mainly through hunger and disease. 

Rebel groups and militias still control large swathes of the territory. More than 175 rangers have died protecting the park, which is in the rugged mountains and volcanic plains adjacent to Rwanda and Uganda.

Since tourism was relaunched in 2014, Virunga National Park - Africa’s oldest national park - has received more than 17,000 visitors, keen to see its rare mountain gorillas or climb the active Nyiragongo volcano.

-Reuters 

The World Health Organization has been given the go-ahead by officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo to import and use an experimental Ebola vaccine in the country, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday. 

“We have agreement, registration, plus import permit, everything formally agreed already,” Tedros told reporters. “All is ready now to really use it.”

Vaccinations could begin by next Monday, he said.

The vaccine, developed by Merck in 2016, has proven safe and effective in human trials, but it is still experimental as it does not yet have a licence. It must be kept at -60 to -80 degrees Celsius (-76°F to -112°F), creating huge logistical challenges.

The shot, which was tested in Guinea in 2015 at the end of a vast Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is designed for use in a so-called “ring vaccination” approach.

This would mean that when a new Ebola case is diagnosed, all people who might have been in recent contact with them are traced and vaccinated to try and prevent the disease’s spread.

The WHO said earlier on Monday that the Democratic Republic of Congo had reported 39 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of Ebola between April 4 and May 13, including 19 deaths. 

It said 393 people who identified as contacts of Ebola patients were being followed up.

Tedros travelled to Congo over the weekend and flew to the remote area, still only accessible by motorbike or helicopter, where the deadly haemorrhagic disease has broken out.

“Being there is very, very important. If a general cannot be with its troops in the front line it’s not a general,” he said.

“And the second thing is, associated with Ebola there is stigma. We have to go and show that that should really stop. And if there is risk, my life is not better than anyone.”

He praised the Congolese government, including President Joseph Kabila whom he met during his trip. 

Information about the outbreak in Bikoro, Iboko and Wangata in Equateur province was still limited, the WHO said, but at present the outbreak does not meet the criteria for declaring a “public health event of international concern”, which would trigger the formation of an emergency WHO committee.

-Reuters

Burundians vote on Thursday in a referendum that would let President Pierre Nkurunziza stay in power until 2034, raising fears of deeper political repression and ethnic conflict in the Great Lakes nation only a generation after the Rwandan genocide.

Nearly half a million have fled since Nkurunziza won a third term in a violent election in 2015. The East African country has the same ethnic makeup as its neighbour Rwanda, where the constitution has also been changed to give the president the opportunity to remain in office.

Opposition politicians and rights groups have cited numerous examples of repression, from arrests of dissidents, to the breaking up of “no” rallies, to death threats issued by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD.

In a sign of the poisonous political atmosphere, the party’s secretary general told a rally in the capital, Bujumbura, this week that those who voted against the proposed changes to the constitution were “enemies of the nation”.

BBC broadcasts were suspended this month for airing views deemed “inappropriate” and ethnically divisive. Voice of America was also suspended but it said its local language programmes were still available on short wave radio, providing one alternative to the CNDD-FDD-dominated state media.

Nkurunziza, a former sports teacher and guerrilla leader from the Hutu ethnic majority, has ruled the landlocked nation, one of the world’s poorest, since the end in 2005 of a civil war in which 300,000 people were killed.

The government has denied allegations of repression and says the vote will be free and fair. A ruling party member who urged government supporters to throw opponents into a lake was jailed last month.

Nonetheless, it is highly likely voters will approve constitutional amendments that would let Nkurunziza - who was recently granted the title “visionary” by his party - run for two more seven-year terms from 2020. 

His opponents said he was already ineligible to run in 2015.

Much of the opposition’s concern centres on the Imbonerakure, whose name means “those who see from far” in Kirundi, the predominant language. The group was implicated in ethnic violence in 2015.

“The Imbonerakure spent nights touring villages, telling our members not to attend our meeting or else be arrested, prosecuted or killed,” said Pierre Célestin Ndikumana, a member of parliament from the Amizero y’Abarundi opposition coalition.

Interior Minister official Therence Ntahiraja said such reports were “a blatant lie”.

Lewis Mudge of New York-based Human Rights Watch said widespread fear meant the vote was likely to proceed calmly.

“No one will dare to come out against it in a concerted effort,” he said. 

Many Burundian refugees are now living in Rwanda, where 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a 1994 genocide orchestrated by Hutu supremacists.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has already changed the constitution to allow him theoretically to remain in power until 2034. Uganda’s long-time ruler, Yoweri Museveni, is also pushing to remove presidential age-limits.

-Reuters

The head of the World Health Organisation said on Sunday there has been another reported case of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo and that an experimental vaccine to fight the disease is expected to become available in the country this week.

Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on a two-visit to DR Congo, said the suspected new case was in Bikoro, at the centre of the latest Ebola outbreak in the country's northwest, where so far 18 people have died.

It brings to 35 the number of reported cases, including two confirmed, according to the WHO tally.

The WHO is planning to begin a vaccination campaign in the area, near the border with the Republic of Congo, using an available stockpile of an experimental vaccine. 

"The vaccines are going to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday. We have enough of them," said Tedros, without specifying the number of doses.

After meeting with DRC President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, the WHO chief praised "the government's very strong leadership" in responding to the health crisis and its "good coordination" with partners such as Unicef and Doctors without Borders (MSF).

On Friday the UN health agency had announced that it was preparing for all scenarios, including the "worst case scenario", in the latest Ebola outbreak in DRC.

Tedros said he hoped for a "better result" in this ninth Ebola outbreak in the vast central African country since 1976, when the deadly viral disease was first identified by a Belgian-led team.

Ebola is one of the world's most notorious diseases, being both highly infectious and extremely lethal.

The worst-ever Ebola outbreak started in December 2013 in southern Guinea before spreading to two neighbouring west African countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,300 people out of nearly 29,000 registered cases.

-AFP

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