Regional leaders gathered in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to discuss the rebel capture of Goma and other towns in eastern Congo as United Nations peacekeepers sought to halt their advance in the resource-rich region.
The World Food Programme said it’s begun distributing aid to at least 81,000 people displaced by fighting this week, while UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the organization is investigating reports the rebel M23 group is recruiting child soldiers in Goma and the nearby town of Sake.
Leaders from the 11-nation African Conference on the Great Lakes Region are meeting after the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda, whose administrations have been accused by UN experts of backing the rebellion, called for M23 to withdraw from Goma. Rwanda and Uganda deny they support the rebels. M23 seized the city on Nov. 20 after ending an unofficial three-month cease-fire, forcing Congo’s army to retreat.
“We are looking at a possibility of putting our observers in Goma,” James Mugume, permanent secretary in Uganda’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview before the summit. “For observers, we can put them in immediately, while a neutral force may come later.”
Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces are one of the world’s largest sources of columbite-tantalite, the mineral known as coltan that’s used in mobile phones and computers. The Central African nation is also the continent’s biggest producer of tin ore, most of which is mined in the Kivus. Banro Corp., based in Toronto, operates the Twingiza gold mine about 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Goma.
Eastern Congo has been overrun by armed groups since the mid-1990s, when violence in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide spread across the border. Rwanda and Congo have battled for influence in the region directly or by rebel proxies for more than a decade.
The relationship between the two countries improved after a 2009 peace accord between Congo and Rwandan-backed rebels. M23, which takes its name from the date in March 2009 when the agreement was signed, says the government didn’t respect the accord, which forced it to mutiny.
More than 1.6 million people are currently displaced in the Kivu provinces, Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva, according to an e-mailed transcript.
“The situation in eastern Congo remains alarming,” Dwyer said. “The M23 are now present in Sake, with reports indicating that they may be on the move toward Masisi territory, which is their stronghold.”
UN peacekeepers still control the airport in Goma and are carrying out patrols throughout the city, he said.
“The mission is also positioning itself to try to prevent further advances of the M23, including toward Bukavu,” though UN forces won’t act as a substitute for Congolese security forces, Dwyer said.
The World Food Programme estimated that about 140,000 civilians in Goma may need food aid, and appealed for funding to help it respond to the crisis.
“The spiral of violence in North Kivu has cut many people off from their regular food supplies and they need emergency assistance to survive,” Martin Ohlsen, the food agency’s country director in Congo, said in an e-mailed statement.