Health authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) say they have suspended Ebola-fighting operations in eastern Beni region, as violence keeps hampering efforts to contain the disease’s worst outbreak in the country’s recorded history.
Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga announced the move on Saturday, a day after clashes broke out a few a “few metres” away from a local emergency centre and the hotels of several responses teams in Beni, North Kivu province.
Peacekeepers from the United Nations‘ mission in the country (MONUSCO) repelled an offensive by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia in the city’s northern Boikene neighbourhood late on Friday.
Seven Malawian and one Tanzanian peacekeeper were killed in the attack.
Oly Ilunga said “all field activities were suspended and the emergency operations centre remains closed,” adding that Ebola health workers had stayed in their hotels.
Also on Saturday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said 16 of its staff members had been temporarily evacuated after a shell hit the building they were staying in.
Michel Yao, the WHO’s coordinator for Ebola response operations in Beni, told the AFP news agency that no one was wounded, adding that it was not known whether the shell came from the ADF or MONUSCO forces.
Oly Ilunga denounced the violence, and said the outbreak “remains dangerous, particularly in Beni”.
The latest Ebola outbreak, the country’s 10th, has caused 166 confirmed and 47 probable deaths, mostly in the mineral-rich North Kivu and Ituri provinces that have been the epicentre of interethnic and militia violence for decades.
According to the WHO, a total of 358 confirmed and probable cases have been reported in the country.
The figure exceeds the 318 cases documented in 1976, when the virus was first identified in Yambuku, in the Equateur province.
“No other epidemic in the world has been as complex as the one we are currently experiencing,” Oly Ilunga said last week, adding that the teams responding to the outbreak are attacked on average three or four times a week, in an unprecedented level of violence compared with the country’s nine previous outbreaks.
“Since their arrival in the region, the response teams have faced threats, physical assaults, repeated destruction of their equipment and kidnapping,” Oly Ilunga.
On Saturday, a ceremony was held for the peacekeepers who were killed in the previous night’s attack.
Fifteen other peacekeepers were killed in an ADF assault on a MONUSCO base in Beni in December 2017.
The armed group was formed in neighbouring Uganda in the 1990s. Forced out of Uganda, it operates in the border area in the DRC’s North Kivu province.
In Beni, the ADF has a brutal reputation. It is blamed for hundreds of civilian deaths over the past three years, as well as mass rape and child soldier recruitment.