REBELS backed by Rwanda have seized the strategic provincial capital of Goma in Congo, raising the spectre of a regional war.
The M23 rebel group, created just seven months ago, took the city of one million people in the east of the country and its international airport yesterday.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 fighters pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city centre and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital to the south.
Thousands of residents fled across the border to Rwanda, said residents of the lakeside city of Gisenyi.
By early afternoon the gunfire had stopped and M23 soldiers marched down the potholed roads, unimpeded. Their senior commanders, accused by the United Nations of war crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, paraded around the town in all-terrain vehicles, waving to thousands of people who left their barricaded houses to see them.
UN peacekeepers based in the city, known by their acronym Monusco, did not assist government forces during yesterday’s battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli. “Monusco is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the Monusco warnings and went past their positions [at the airport]. We ask that the Monusco do more,” he said.
A UN spokesman said the nearly 1,500 UN peacekeepers in Goma held their fire. The peacekeepers “cannot substitute for the efforts of national forces” in Congo, said spokesman Eduardo del Buey. “Do you open fire and put civilians at risk, or do you hold your fire, continue your patrols, observe what’s happening and remind the M23 they are subject to international humanitarian and human rights law?”
UN experts say Rwanda has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years and is behind the revolt. Congo’s mineral wealth, including diamonds, gold, copper and coltan – used in mobile phones – has inflamed the conflict in an area the size of western Europe.
Rwanda is accused of equipping the mostly Tutsi rebels with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120mm mortars.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said Rwandan regular soldiers had crossed into Goma, hiking over footpaths across a volcano between the two countries.
“Goma is in the process of being occupied by Rwanda,” said Mr Mende, speaking from the distant capital, Kinshasa. “We have people who saw the Rwandan army traverse our frontier at the Nyamuragira volcano.”
A Congolese colonel at the front before Goma fell, said the soldiers he saw were Rwandan. Congo’s president Joseph Kabila flew to Uganda yesterday for talks with president Yoweri Museveni.
M23 rebel spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama confirmed they had taken the airport and city. “We are now inside Goma,” he said.
Goma, a city of low-lying buildings, many topped by rusted corrugated roofs, was last threatened by rebels in 2008 when fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, stopped at its outskirts. Their backs to the wall, the Congolese government agreed to talks with the CNDP and a year later, on 23 March (M23), 2009, a peace deal was struck calling for the CNDP to be integrated into the army.
The peace deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP, quit the army, claiming the government had failed to honour the deal, creating the M23 group. If the rebels succeed in taking Bukavu next, it will mark the biggest gain in rebel territory since at least 2003, when Congo’s last war with its neighbours, including Rwanda and Uganda, ended.
Jean-Claude Bampa, who lives near the road to Sake, the first town on the drive to Bukavu, spoke by phone over loud gunfire. “I can hear gunshots everywhere, it is all around my home,” he said. “We are stuck inside and are terrified. I pray this will be over soon.”