Congo rebels advance on Goma

Rebels led by Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda are closing in on DR Congo’s eastern capital of Goma. According to eyewitnesses they have reached the outskirts of the city. “There is heavy, heavy fighting, you can see smoke from where shells have hit,” an eyewitness says. The UN peacekeeping force MONUC in Goma is in need of additional support as quickly as possible to push back the rebels.

Thousands of civilians are fleeing the fighting between government and rebel forces. Some 40,000 men, women and children have fled to Kibaki to find shelter and protection. Karl Steinacker is the UNHR coordinator for East Goma. He warns of a mounting humanitarian crisis:

“You should know we are in the middle of the raining season, so the very first thing the people need is shelter. We have to provide mass shelters, but even that is not sufficient. People have to camp in the open, putting everything they have over their heads. And then all the rest, food water and so on.”

Aid organisations are doing everything they can to help the refugees. Doctors Without Borders employee Erna van Goor says they see more and more people fleeing to makeshift refugee camps.

“The people left their homes quickly without being well-prepared, and are coming with pans and mattresses and watever they could carry on their heads. Most were able to leave in time, but there are also people who have been wounded and hit by bullets. Most people are scared.”Fighting flared early on Monday between ethnic Tutsi warlord Nkunda’s rebels and government troops. The rebels are continuing an offensive march into the strategic town of Rutshuru, 70 kilometres north of Goma. According to Steinacker the army has left the city in a state of anarchy.

“We have our UNHCR staff actually in hiding in UN or MONUC military bases. People are leaving Rutshuru in two directions. They are leaving north to stay inside Congo and another group seems to be moving to Uganda.”

While the situation in eastern DRC is getting worse, the 17,000 UN peacekeepers are unable to protect civilians. In Goma, hundreds of people protested against the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MONUC, which is accused of doing too little to keep away rebel fighters from the area. The protest degenerated into aggression, with demonstrators pelting the compound and cars with large stones. There are reports that the peacekeepers killed two protesters in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

In the midst of the violence, MONUC’s Spanish General Vicente Díaz de Villegas y Herrería has resigned. Officially appointed just seven weeks ago, he had been in the country only three weeks. He cited personal reasons for his resignation but some officials say he was critical of the lack of a coherent strategy, the lack of a mandate and a lack of resources to get the peacekeeping job done.

Government of combat and reconstruction
The latest fighting follows President Joseph Kabila’s decision on Sunday to replace his defence minister in a government of “combat and reconstruction” in a bid to pacify the east of the country. The announcement followed the capture by Nkunda of the military camp in Rumangabo from government forces.

Nkunda has rejected all cease-fires brokered by the UN and has even threatened to take his war all the way to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, on the other side of the country. His forces are much better trained and equipped than the government troops, who are accused of assaulting civilians and of fleeing when faced with a real threat.

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Congo rebels advance on Goma
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