Fatal attacks on Congo clinics risk resurgence of Ebola epidemic

By Fiston Mahamba

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – International organizations warned on Friday of a potential resurgence of Ebola in Congo after deadly militia attacks on health centers forced aid groups to suspend operations and withdraw staff from the epidemic’s last strongholds.

Mai Mai militia fighters killed four people and injured several others at two Ebola centers on Thursday in the worst yet of violence hampering efforts to tame the outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The world’s second biggest Ebola epidemic on record has killed over 2,200 people since mid-2018, but new infections slowed in recent months.

“Ebola was retreating and now it is likely to resurge,” World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a news briefing in Geneva. WHO has relocated 173 staff while the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF has evacuated 20 staff.

After Thursday’s fatal raids on health centers in Mangina and Byakoto, a screening center was also attacked overnight in the town of Oicha, Congolese health authorities said.

Mai Mai fighters and local residents have attacked health facilities sometimes because they believe Ebola does not exist and in other cases because of resentment that they have not benefited from the influx of donor funding.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) halted operations in the towns of Mangina, Beni and Butembo.

“We’ve had to put all Ebola activities on hold in high-risk areas,” said Corrie Butler, spokeswoman for the IFRC in Congo, saying the attacks had been in areas with most Ebola cases.

At least 1,500 Red Cross staff and volunteers are involved in Ebola work in east Congo, she said, most in areas where activities are now suspended due to violence.

The World Food Programme (WFP), another U.N. agency which provides food to those around infected people and at risk of Ebola, said its activities had also been interrupted due to insecurity.

Congolese health authorities said they had evacuated 13 staff and other transfers were underway.

The Alliance for International Medical Action (ALIMA) charity said activities at its treatment centers in Mambasa and Katwa towns were not suspended but it was monitoring the security situation closely.

Thursday’s attacks followed raids on communities by suspected Islamist rebels believed to have killed at least 100 people in the past month, according to U.N. figures.

At least four people also died this week during protests at the perceived failure of the army and U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians from the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces (ADF)

(Reporting from Fiston Mahamba in Goma, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Anna Pujol-Mazzini in Dakar; Writing by Anna Pujol-Mazzini; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Andrew Cawthorne)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)