Regional war fear as 50,000 homeless in Congo in two days
“There is absolute panic..."
Congolese government forces are fleeing the eastern capital of Goma as Rwandan-backed rebels press towards the town, threatening a lethal confrontation with United Nations peacekeepers and the prospect of all out regional war, Times reported.
Western aid workers in Goma, with a population of 600,000, described scenes of mayhem in the streets as columns of government tanks and military vehicles streamed out of the city and panicking civilians fled for cover, fearing an imminent rebel onslaught.
“There is absolute panic,” Karl Steinacker, an official with the UN refugee agency told The Times by telephone this afternoon. “As of ten minutes ago, the war has arrived in the streets. There are columns of army running away. They are basically abandoning the city.”
The flight of government forces leaves an already overstretched UN peacekeeping forces the only bulwark between Goma and forces loyal to the ethnic Tutsi guerrilla leader, General Laurent Nkunda.
UN commanders today appealed to the Security Council for reinforcements to their 17,000 strong peacekeeping force in eastern Congo to try and prevent a return to all out war.
“We are going to act against any effort to take over a city or any major population centre by force,” Alan Doss, the UN secretary general’s special representative to Congo said from Kinshasa.
The fighting, which has escalated dramatically in the last two days, is by far the most serious since the UN brokered ceasefire in 2003 and threatens to drag Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo into a new all-out regional war.
The six-year so-called Great War of Africa killed an estimated 3.8 million people, making it the world’s worst armed conflict since the Second World War. Since 2003, however, a further 1.4 million have died from violence, famine and disease in the war’s aftermath.
Eastern Congo owes its lethal volatility to a potent mix of lucrative natural resources and unresolved ethnic tensions from the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The rebels bearing down on Goma are led by the renegade General Nkunda, a charismatic evangelical Christian who styles himself as the saviour of Congo’s Tutsi minority.
General Nkunda claims to be fighting to prevent a second genocide of the Tutsi people, invoking Hutu militias, a hardcore of whom dwell deep in the eastern Congolese forest where they fled from Rwanda after the genocide.
His efforts, however, have only drawn those militias deeper into the fight as ill-equipped and motivated government commanders have turned to them for assistance in the fight against the rebels. Exploiting Tutsi fears has helped him expand his sphere of influence and with it, control over more of the lucrative mineral trade.
But the current fighting has turned into a nightmare for aid efforts in an area already deemed the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. After UN attack helicopters repelled General Nkunda’s forces near Kibumba, the rebels turned north, seizing the town of Rutshuru, north of Goma and near the border with Uganda.
Government commanders said that the rebels` dramatic advance had been aided by Rwandan tanks pounding their position from hilltop vantage points just over the border– a charge Rwanda firmly denies.
An attempt to rescue 50 foreign aid workers trapped in Rutshuru had to abandoned when the UN convoy sent to extract them was itself attacked by rebels. The UN have also come under attack by civilian mobs furious at the failure to protect them.
More than 250,000 people have been made homeless since the latest bout of fighting erupted in August; 50,000 of them within the last two days alone. The UN refugee agency reported around 30,000 “exhausted and traumatised” new arrivals reaching Kibati camp just outside Goma yesterday after walking with their few possessions for several days.
But as of this afternoon, aid workers were unable even to reach the camp, and reports were reaching Goma that its inhabitants had begun to flee back into the bush amid news that the city itself could be taken within hours.
The rebels said today that they were within “two to three days” of capturing Goma, despite the peacekeepers efforts to halt them.
Goma yesterday was awash with rumours that rebels had already entered the city, although heavy fighting was still several miles outside the city. UN peacekeepers were nowhere to be seen on the streets. Commanders said they were regrouping north of Goma preparing to fight for the city.