Attack by Islamists in Congo kills 12 in 'Triangle of Death' Ebola zone

By MAX BEARAK | The Washington Post | Published: July 24, 2019

NAIROBI, Kenya - Fighters from an Islamist insurgency attacked two towns at the center of an ongoing Ebola outbreak zone in eastern Congo on Wednesday, killing 12 according to local officials. 

The towns, Oicha and Eringite, are in an area sometimes referred to by health workers as "le triangle de la mort" or triangle of death as a vicious cycle of attacks have aided the spread of Ebola. 

"Our activities are seriously negatively affected," said Marie-Roseline Belizaire, the World Health Organization's deputy manager for the response, speaking by phone from the nearby town of Mangina. "We cannot access the area."

Wednesday's attacks were carried out by the most active of dozens of militias operating in the area, the Allied Democratic Forces.

The ADF has terrorized communities in eastern Congo for years, kidnapping children and stoking ethnic tensions. Its leadership is mostly composed of Ugandan nationals.

Since last month, the Islamic State has claimed ADF attacks as its own, saying the group is an affiliate in its so-called Central African Province. Security experts have cast doubt on any tangible cooperation between the two groups. The ADF has never publicly pledged any allegiance to any other group.

The ADF's primary area of activity is in Congo's Beni territory, where the outbreak began and where it remains most concentrated. The area is densely forested, and the ADF controls a small number of remote villages there.

The Ebola outbreak will hit its first anniversary next week and has killed more than 1,700 and infected more than 2,500, according to statistics from the Congo Health Ministry. Health workers worry that those totals are only the bare minimum estimates, as places like Oicha and Eringite are so often inaccessible, making accurate recording and tracing of cases nearly impossible.

The outbreak is the worst Congo has ever experienced and is the second-worst in history, after an epidemic devastated parts of West Africa between 2014 and 2016, killing more than 11,000. 

Last week, the WHO declared the Ebola outbreak to be a "public health emergency of international concern," a designation meant to bring greater global attention to the crisis, potentially paving the way for an expanded response.

The pace of the outbreak increased around a month ago and has stayed steady since. In just the past three weeks, 254 people have been confirmed to have the virus, a number that would constitute a large outbreak in its own right. Most of the cases have been in the same area where Wednesday's attacks took place. 

Communities in eastern Congo have suffered through decades of warfare, often instigated by militias from outside the region, or outside of Congo entirely, like the ADF.

These conflicts have exacerbated ethnic tension, and made many locals wary of outsiders, including health workers. Organizations leading the Ebola response regularly encounter mistrust or even malice from locals.

Attacks on health workers by armed groups happen on a daily basis, though only a small number are deadly. With each attack, however, the response is disrupted, and the painstaking process of preventing Ebola's spread is set back. 

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