Furious mobs stoned U.N. peacekeepers' compounds Monday and thousands fled advancing rebel troops as chaos returned to eastern Congo, fueled by hatred left from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars.
In what appeared a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back from the battlefront north of the provincial capital of Goma – fleeing any way possible, including in tanks, jeeps and commandeered cars.
Crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds in Goma, outraged at what they called a failure to protect them from rebels. Later in the day, peacekeepers in helicopter gunships attacked rebel forces surging on Kibumba, 30 miles north of Goma, said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg.
The U.N. said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force quit Monday after just a month. And Congo's president appointed a new Cabinet, including a new defense minister, and charged it with being “a combat government to re-establish peace.”
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Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council to respect a ceasefire brokered by the U.N. in January. Nkunda charges the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 genocide.
Tens of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By night, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep.
The civilians and soldiers were surging south from a major army base seized by the rebels on Sunday. As the crowds reached Goma, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance, apparently fearing rebels could try to infiltrate the displaced civilians.
Monday's peacekeeper assault was the second in a year against Nkunda's rebels. In December, the U.N. also used attack helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under a mandate to protect civilians.