JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - A new report estimates that 2.5 million people have died as a result of almost three years of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which would make the central African conflict one of the deadliest in recent history.
The study, to be released in full tomorrow by the New York-based relief group International Rescue Committee, says the majority of the Congo war's victims have been killed not by bullets but by rampant disease and malnutrition in the remote, rebel-held jungles of the nation's interior.
"The ongoing fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of people into forests, jungles and other remote areas, where they have no food, medicine or shelter," said a preliminary statement issued by the relief group. "Health-care systems in the region have been decimated, and war-affected areas have been largely inaccessible to aid organizations because of the insecurity."
Last year, the group counted 1 million fewer deaths and estimated that 2,600 Congolese a day were dying of war-related causes. The main Congolese rebel group in whose territory part of the survey was carried out criticized the study as biased and exaggerated.
The latest count comes at a delicate time for the peace process in Congo.
Although United Nations peacekeepers are entering the troubled region after years of delays, Uganda, one of the main combatants in the complicated, multination conflict, has pulled out of a crucial 1999 cease-fire accord.
Uganda's action was sparked by a recent U.N. investigation that accused Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi of looting natural resources from mineral-rich Congo. All three countries support Congo's fractious rebel groups in the 32-month-old civil war, and Angola and Zimbabwe have sent troops to support the Congolese government.
Huge and largely without roads, the steamy jungles that make up Congo's war zone have devolved in many places into lawlessness. Cities established there by Belgian colonists are being swallowed by the bush.
International Rescue Committee researchers have traveled to five of those remote eastern provinces during the past year to survey households chosen at random about recent deaths. The results of the survey were compared with death rates expected in a place such as Congo during peacetime. The report's author, U.S. epidemiologist Les Roberts, passed himself off at military roadblocks as a missionary priest.
"There is no way to be exact with a survey like this," said Roberts, who analyzed mortality data from more than 1,000 households. "Eastern Congo is huge, is sparsely populated and road-free even by African standards. But even if we're off by 20 percent, this is a human catastrophe."
The main rebel group controlling eastern Congo has condemned the group's preliminary findings as "sensationalist."
"They are playing around with probability and extrapolation," said Thomas Nziratimana, spokesman for the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy. "The fact that they didn't do a similar survey on the government side of the lines proves they are biased."