M23 rebels in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo gained ground on government forces as fighting reached the outskirts of a provincial capital in a fight for control of the resource-rich region.
Alarmed by the escalating violence, the United Nations Security Council is seeking sanctions on leaders of the M23, which is composed of soldiers who deserted Congo’s army in April, as well as ways to choke off the group’s weapons supply. It demanded an immediate end to “any and all outside support to the M23,” an indirect reference to neighboring Rwanda.
“The situation is very dire,” Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, told reporters yesterday in New York. Rwanda “obviously” will be part of a resolution drafted by France, though “I guess a delicate part” of it, he said.
UN peacekeepers are struggling to contain the advance of M23 rebels suspected of getting help from Rwanda. An M23 offensive has brought the rebels within five kilometers (three miles) of the city of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, said Kieran Dwyer, the spokesman for UN peacekeeping operations. Rebel mortar rounds landed yesterday near UN peacekeepers’ positions, including at the city’s airport, Araud said.
Congo and Rwanda have fought directly or by proxy since the late 1990s. At stake in the eastern part of Congo bordering Rwanda and Uganda are deposits of tin ore, gold, tungsten and coltan, a mineral used in laptops and mobile phones. The fighting in Africa’s second-largest country has left civilians without protection and created a security vacuum.
Armed groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a mainly Hutu militia that opposes the Rwandan government, have thrived in eastern Congo’s remote hills for more than a decade.
“More than 50,000 people have fled camps and homes in Goma or on the outskirts of the town since Nov. 18,” said Tariq Riebl, humanitarian coordinator for the international relief organization Oxfam, in an e-mailed statement yesterday.
“If fighting intensifies further, there are very few places people can go for safety,” Riebl said. “With almost 2.5 million people now displaced across eastern Congo, this catastrophe requires a concerted humanitarian and diplomatic response.”
The UN began evacuating its non-essential staff while peacekeepers will remain to protect civilians, Dwyer said. About 8,100 peacekeepers have already been placed on high alert.
While Rwanda hasn’t been directly implicated in the attacks, M23 forces appeared to be well-equipped and have supplies such as night-vision goggles that indicate they are getting outside assistance, according to UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.
Rwanda has rejected the findings of a UN group of experts monitoring an arms embargo on Congo. Their 44-page report said Rwandan officials have commanded the seven-month rebellion.
Accusations have flown that the violence has spilled over the borders. At least three people were injured and one person was killed yesterday when “weapons” were fired into Rwanda, Rwandan army spokesman Brigadier General Joseph Nzabamwinta said by phone.
Congolese Minister of Communication Lambert Mende said he wasn’t aware of the incident in a phone interview yesterday from the capital, Kinshasa. The UN’s Dwyer said reports of firing from Congo into Rwanda couldn’t be confirmed.
The chances for a negotiated end to the hostilities appear slim. The M23 rebels have called for the Congolese army to leave Goma and insist on direct talks with the government. Both requests have been refused.
The M23 “invites all the inhabitants of the city of Goma and its environs to keep their calm and to follow peacefully the evolution of the situation from their homes,” a rebel commander known as Colonel Sultani Makenga said in a statement yesterday.
To contact the reporters on this story: Michael J. Kavanagh in Kinshasa at email@example.com; Flavia Krause-Jackson in United Nations at firstname.lastname@example.org; Saul Butera in Nairobi at email@example.com