Rebel forces in resource-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said they captured the city of Goma, amid fighting that aid workers said forced tens of thousands of people to flee.
“All of Goma is under the control” of the M23 rebels, including the airport, Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the fighters, said in a phone interview today. A corridor is being created to allow members of the national army to leave, he said. Army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli didn’t answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila appealed for calm and said “all options are still on the table” regarding how the government will respond. His comments, broadcast on state television, were recorded before he left for Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda, the broadcaster said. The interviewers in the video weren’t aware Goma had fallen.
M23 resumed fighting against government forces last week, ending an unofficial three-month cease-fire. The renegade group is composed of soldiers that deserted Congo’s army in April and is headed by General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges. 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.
Goma, about 1,659 kilometers (1,031 miles) east of Kinshasa, is situated on the border with Rwanda at the northern edge of Lake Kivu. Historically, it has been the main transit point for minerals from the region.
“Strategically, it’s very important” for the M23, Koen Vlassenroot, the director of the Conflict Research Group at the University of Ghent in Belgium, said in a phone interview. “It’s easier to control the territory they already have in the north and further south and west. Goma is also an important economic hub.”
Congo, which is almost the size of Western Europe, is the world’s largest cobalt producer and was the 10th-largest exporter of copper last year, according to CRU Group, a London-based research company.
Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. of the U.S., Baar, Switzerland-based Glencore International Plc, and Minmetals Resources Ltd., based in Hong Kong, have copper and cobalt projects in the country. Randgold Resources Ltd., AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Banro Corp. are investing in gold mines.
A UN group of experts monitoring Congo’s arms embargo has accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, allegations both governments deny.
“What happened today in Goma is a clear indication that the military option has failed to bring about a solution to this crisis and that political dialogue is the only way to resolve the ongoing conflict,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement.
Uganda has told Congo’s government and the rebels that it supports a negotiated settlement, Asuman Kiyingi, Uganda’s minister of state for regional affairs, said by phone from Kampala today.
In an interview on Congolese national television, Communication Minister Lambert Mende blamed Rwanda for the M23 advance, and said the government would negotiate with Rwanda and not the rebels. Congo and Rwanda have fought directly or by proxy since the late 1990s. A 2009 peace deal between Congo and Rwandan-backed rebels improved relations between the two countries until the M23 rebellion began seven months ago.
On Nov. 13, the UN imposed sanctions on M23 commander Colonel Sultani Makenga for violations of international law, including rape and the use of child soldiers. The council is planning more sanctions against M23 leaders.
Escalating violence around Goma, which is the capital of Congo’s North Kivu province, forced about 60,000 people to flee a displacement camp in eastern Congo in panic, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Geneva-based medical charity, said in an e-mailed statement.
UN peacekeepers remain in Goma to protect civilians, UN spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai said by phone from the capital, Kinshasa.
“We still have our people in place and we’re carrying out our monitoring of human rights violations to make sure there is no violence against the people,” he said. The peacekeepers won’t attack the rebels “unless there is a direct threat to us, the civilians or to our installations.”
The first M23 troops entered Goma last night, Kazarama said. “Our plan is to neutralize the government of Kabila” he said.
In Kinshasa, police used tear gas to disperse university students who gathered in a city square to protest Goma’s fall.
“We wanted to protest peacefully but our police stopped us,” said Yannick, a student at the Institute Superior of Architecture and Urban Planning in Kinshasa who declined to give his full name for security reasons. “We realize that our government can no longer do anything about the situation in the east,” he said, blaming the “international community” for not supporting the government.
In Kisangani, a city of about 800,000 in the center of the country, protesters set fire to the headquarters of Kabila’s political party, the UN’s Mounoubai said.