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Up to 7,000 Congolese refugees flee into Uganda

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RODNEY MUHUMUZA | March 28, 2012 09:30 AM EST | AP

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KAMPALA, Uganda — Up to 7,000 Congolese refugees have fled to Uganda to escape violence in their home country, Ugandan officials said, warning that the influx now posed a security risk for Uganda.

Stephen Mallinga, Uganda's minister for refugees and disasters, said late Tuesday that the rising number of refugees could upset Ugandan residents and lead to clashes over resources.

"The people of Kisoro are starting to feel jittery," he said, referring to the Ugandan region that has been receiving most of the refugees.

Hundreds of Congolese nationals are entering Uganda each day, stretching the capacity of border officials who have to screen them carefully, according to Kisoro chairman Milton Mutabazi.

"We are relocating about 1,000 refugees every four or five days," he said. "The situation is unpredictable. It calls for us to be vigilant and to pay close attention to them."

More than 3,000 civilians fleeing violence in the North Kivu province of Congo have entered Uganda since the beginning of this year alone, the United Nations refugee agency says.

The refugee influx comes at a time of heightened security along the Uganda-Congo border over concerns that a terrorist rebel group opposed to the Ugandan government is actively regrouping in the jungles of eastern Congo, where several militias and rebel groups operate with impunity.

The Ugandan military has been warning that Allied Democratic Forces rebels, who have in the past staged terrorist attacks on Ugandan territory, are conducting military drills only 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border.

A government plan to relocate the newly arrived Congolese refugees to a camp deep in western Uganda has been delayed by the objections of residents who say they also need the land. Some have threatened violence if they are forcibly evicted.

A local official who had been helping to resettle the refugees was killed on March 1, apparently by residents who did not approve of his humanitarian work.

Mallinga said the government had to act fast in response to growing number of refugees, who are staying at transit centers until they are relocated to Rwamwanja, a sprawling camp that was occupied by Tutsi refugees until the end of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He did not say when the government was likely to evict the Ugandan residents who encroached on the resettlement camp.

"We have no choice but to start moving," he said.

The government had originally planned to resettle the Congolese refugees on March 19.