Rwandan-backed rebels pushed back government and UN forces yesterday, advancing to within two miles of Goma, a crucial provincial capital in eastern Congo.
In four days of battles, the rebels have advanced closer than at any time in their eight-month-old uprising to Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu and home to the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission. M23 rebel spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama said the group will spend the night in Goma.
“We are about to take the town. We will spend the night in Goma tonight,” said Col Kazarama. “We are confident that we can take Goma and then our next step will be to take Bukavu,” he said mentioning the capital of the next province to the south.
The United Nations has about 6,700 peacekeeping forces in North Kivu, with some 1,400 troops in Goma and the surrounding area. The force has a mandate to protect civilians.
The M23 rebel group is made up of soldiers from a now-defunct rebel army, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, a group made-up primarily of fighters from the Tutsi ethnic group, the ethnicity that was targeted in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
In 2008, the CNDP led by Rwandan commando General Laurent Nkunda marched his soldiers to the doorstep of Goma, abruptly stopping just before taking the city.
In the negotiations that followed and which culminated in a 23 March, 2009 peace deal, the CNDP agreed to disband and their fighters joined the national army of Congo. They did not pick up their arms again until this spring, when hundreds of ex-CNDP fighters defected from the army in April, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the 2009 agreement.
Reports, including one by the United Nations Group of Experts, have shown that M23 is actively being backed by Rwanda and the new rebellion is likely linked to the fight to control Congo’s rich mineral wealth.
Tariq Riebl, humanitarian programme co-ordinator for Oxfamaid agency said residents were trying to evacuate their families from Goma while trucks full of Congolese soldiers were seen leaving the city yesterday.
“People are moving around the city. I do know a lot of people are sending their families out if they have the financial means to do that,” Mr Riebl said.
He said thousands of displaced people were also abandoning camps in the north of the city to avoid the advancing rebels.
“We are expecting 50,000 people moving today, and when the dust settles tomorrow, we’ll just have to see where those people are located,” he said.
On Saturday, UN helicopters strafed rebel positions, but insurgents have continued to gain ground.
Goma, on the Rwandan border, is home to up to a million people.
While Rwanda’s army has repeatedly sent soldiers into Congo during nearly two decades of conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region, the Rwandan government has strongly denied supporting the M23 in the latest rebellion.
The UN’s peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, said that the M23 rebels had sophisticated equipment, including night vision capacity and 120 mm mortars.