By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Dec 6 (Reuters) – The International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday called on the army and rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo to spare civilian lives in their latest bout of fighting in the country's conflict-ravaged east.
The neutral humanitarian agency voiced special concern at the fate of women in North Kivu province, who it said were especially vulnerable to rape in the midst of "mass exodus" linked to the flare-up in violence.
"The security of civilians trapped by the fighting is currently our main priority," said Max Hadorn, head of the ICRC's delegation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Swiss-based ICRC last week said all sides of the conflict in the former Zaire were killing and raping civilians and looting on a scale not seen in years.
In a statement issued on Thursday, it reminded the warring parties of "their obligation under humanitarian law to spare the lives and physical integrity of civilians, the wounded and persons captured in connection with the fighting."
Government forces used attack helicopters, rockets and artillery to retake the strategic town of Mushake — about 40 km (25 miles) west of the provincial capital Goma — on Wednesday, in a rare victory over rebels loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.
The fighting came as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and regional leaders reaffirmed their commitment to peace in the area where various levels of violence have continued since a 1998-2003 war.
The build-up of military forces and repeated clashes in North Kivu over the past year have led to the worst internal displacement in the area since the civil war ended in 2003, according to the UNHCR.
More than 400,000 people have fled violence in North Kivu between government soldiers, Nkunda's insurgents, Rwandan Hutu rebels, and local Mai Mai militia over the past year.
The ICRC noted a "mass exodus" of civilians seeking refuge in safer areas since Mushake's takeover. Some were trying to reach camps for displaced persons near Goma while others were heading for the southern part of Lubero territory.
But the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it had not registered any new arrivals at five camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) around Goma since the arrival on Monday of 300 Congolese who fled fighting in the Sake area.
"We know fighting is going on which means people are probably on the road, on foot. Men frequently hide in the woods to avoid recruitment or any retaliation," said Andrej Mahecic, spokesman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Both sides in the conflict are obliged to spare food, livestock and drinking water facilities which are essential to the survival of the civilian population, according to the ICRC which monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
Medical facilities, ambulances and personnel must also be protected at all times, the humanitarian agency said, further stressing that children should not be recruited into army forces or allowed to take part in the fighting.