Congolese rebels fought their way closer to the city of Goma in eastern Congo on Tuesday, sending tens of thousands of villagers fleeing down muddy roads, as the top U.N. representative in the country appealed to the Security Council to reinforce its peacekeeping force.
Congolese government soldiers, better known for preying on civilians than helping them, retreated from the front lines north of Goma, according to U.N. officials, leaving the job of protecting Goma's population of 600,000 to the U.N. mission, known as MONUC.
“The situation is very intense. There is fighting not too far from Goma,” said Alan Doss, the U.N. secretary general's special envoy to Congo, adding that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis are underway. “There are indications that (rebel) elements are trying to move forward, and MONUC has made it clear that this would be unacceptable.”
Eastern Congo has been plagued by two civil wars since 1996 and fighting since then among several rebel groups. Some analysts estimate that more than 5 million people have died, most as a result of hunger, disease and other deprivations caused by conflict.
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Although the tensions are fueled by a lucrative mineral trade, the strife is rooted in the unresolved aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
The rebels are led by renegade Congolese Gen. Laurent Nkunda, a charismatic figure who has vowed to protect the region's ethnic Tutsi minority from Hutu militias led by a core group that fled into the forests of eastern Congo after the genocide.
Despite several agreements with Rwanda, the Congolese government has failed to make good on promises to disarm the Hutu militias. More recently, local army commanders have collaborated with the militias, relying on them to help fight Nkunda's better-disciplined, better-paid rebel forces.
Nkunda, who trained with the Rwandan army, has said he is preventing a possible second genocide, this time in eastern Congo, where Tutsis are often cast as invaders or proxies for Rwanda. Since August, he has steadily expanded his fiefdom by seizing important towns and a national park where 200 of the last 700 mountain gorillas in the world live.
On Tuesday, the peacekeepers reinforced positions north of Goma, and the United Nations ordered attack helicopters to fire on rebel forces outside Goma and the nearby town of Rutshura. “We are going to act against any effort to take over a city or any major population center by force,” Doss said in a teleconference with reporters at U.N. headquarters.
Meanwhile, Rwanda sent additional troops to its border with Congo, Rwandan officials said. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting Nkunda, which Rwanda has denied.
Doss said the peacekeepers have been hampered by rock-throwing Congolese, who accuse the U.N. force of failing to protect them through the years of almost incessant fighting. At least one civilian was killed Monday, allegedly by a U.N. soldier who fired into a crowd, and local leaders have been drumming up anti-U.N. sentiment.
“It's important that government forces play their role,” Doss said. “And it's very important we are not hindered by local mobs.”