September 2, 2019 / 5:21 PM / 15 days ago

Former Congo health minister questioned over Ebola spending

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s former health minister has been questioned by police over his management of funds in the country’s response to the Ebola epidemic, his lawyers said on Monday.

They denied any wrongdoing by Oly Ilunga and said no formal accusations had been made against him relating to the Ebola response. Any allegations, they said, would be “unfounded (and) without basis in evidence”.

Ilunga oversaw the government’s response to the outbreak, the second deadliest in history, for nearly a year. He was stripped by the presidency of that responsibility in July and resigned from the government days later.

In his resignation letter, he sharply criticised the new government team overseeing the response and what he said was pressure by health officials and outside groups to introduce a second vaccine to combat the epidemic.

Ilunga’s lawyers, Guy Kabeya and Willy Ngashi, said their client was first summoned by the police in July to respond to accusations by a health official that Ilunga had abused his authority and misappropriated funds unrelated to Ebola.

Then, late last month, after three of the advisers had been detained for unknown reasons, they said, Ilunga was questioned about his role managing the Ebola response and the circumstances of his resignation, the lawyers said in a statement.

They said police asked Ilunga to provide documentation regarding payments made to village chiefs in return for work they did spreading information about Ebola as well as monthly bonuses distributed to ministry employees.

A police spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Foreign donors have provided more than $150 million in funding to the Ebola response over the past year, but the United Nations has said hundreds of millions of dollars more are needed.

Speaking during a visit on Sunday to the town where the current outbreak started, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said only 15% of pledges made to the response had been paid out so far.

“That means there is a liquidity problem in the response, which is extremely serious. And when there is no cash, even if there are promises, the Ebola response stops,” Guterres said.

The outbreak has so far killed 2,031 people and infected 1,000 more. Only the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa, which killed more than 11,300, was deadlier.

Reporting by Fiston Mahamba with additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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