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Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - Government forces re-established control over Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city of Goma on Monday after rebels withdrew, but a senior official said the insurgents were only a few kilometres away and still posed a threat.
The M23 rebel movement pulled its fighters out of the North Kivu provincial capital on Saturday after seizing it from fleeing U.N.-backed government forces and holding it for 11 days.
But the situation remained tense and uncertain in the absence of any definitive peace accord to end the eight-month-old insurgency, which has displaced thousands of civilians in a region that is a tinderbox of ethnic and political conflict.
North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku, who had left Goma when rebels took it on November 20, met Congolese Interior Minister Richard Muyej in a hotel in the city, which is sited among lush green hills on Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda.
“I have come back here to work like before,” Paluku told Reuters, saying his residence was looted during the rebel seizure of Goma. The city's capture triggered an international diplomatic scramble to head off an escalation of the conflict.
Under a deal brokered by Uganda days after Goma's fall, M23 leaders agreed to withdraw to positions 20 km (13 miles) north of the city after Congolese President Joseph Kabila said he was ready to listen to the rebels' grievances.
But Paluku said some M23 units were much closer to the city than had been agreed. “They are in Monigi. It is only 3 or 5 km away. It is not good,” he told Reuters.
M23 spokesman Amani Kabasha told Reuters by telephone some rebels were in Monigi, which is on the road north to Rutshuru.
But he said the fighters there would form part of an M23 detachment that would join government troops and a neutral international force to be stationed together at Goma airport - one of the points agreed in the withdrawal deal.
“We are waiting to move our company to the airport. After that we will decide on the line (between government forces and rebels),” Kabasha said.
M23 draws most of its strength from Tutsi former rebels integrated into the Congolese army who mutinied in April.
It has called for talks between Kabila and political opponents, the release of political prisoners and dissolution of Congo's electoral commission, which oversaw Kabila's re-election in 2011 in a vote judged flawed by foreign observers.
Government spokesmen have not confirmed that Kabila is willing to hold such a wide dialogue, and the president faces pressure from within his own armed forces to pursue a military solution against M23. Congo and U.N. experts say the rebels are backed by Rwanda and Uganda, a charge both strongly deny.
Goma's dusty streets were busy, with markets open selling vegetables and smoked fish, and roads choked with traffic.
But banks remained closed. “Things are bad because no one has money to buy my fish,” said one woman hawking fish.
In Sake, 30 km (19 miles) west of Goma, several hundred government troops paraded, preparing to re-enter Goma.
Some Congolese soldiers were already back in the city barracks. They milled around the tents and dilapidated buildings and a few smoked on the back of a vehicle.
Goma lies at the heart of Congo's eastern borderlands which have suffered nearly two decades of conflict stoked by long-standing ethnic and political enmities and fighting over the region's rich resources of gold, tin, tungsten and coltan - a precious metal used to make mobile phones.
Successive attacks by myriad rebel and militia groups and government soldiers have made the region notorious among rights groups for mass killings, recruitment of child soldiers and rapes used as a weapon of war.
The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA said at least 130,000 people were displaced and in sites and camps in and around Goma.
“One cannot exclude the risk of looting or renewed violence,” the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Congo, Moustapha Soumare, said in a statement.
U.N. officials said a camp housing some 45,000 people about 15 km (nine miles) outside Goma had been raided by unidentified gunmen late on Friday. Several women were raped and food and supplies stolen.
OCHA's Soumare said thousands more civilians were fleeing attacks by armed groups which were on the rise in other areas of North Kivu, particularly in Masisi.
Neighbouring Rwanda has twice invaded its western neighbour over the past two decades, at one point igniting a conflict dubbed “Africa's World War” that drew in several countries.
Aid agencies say more than 5 million people have died from conflict, hunger or disease in Congo since 1998.
Kigali has justified its interventions by arguing it was forced to act against hostile Rwandan Hutu fighters who had fled to Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed by Hutu soldiers and militia.
Rwanda's military said on Sunday that FDLR rebels crossed the border from Congo and attacked a game warden camp, killing one warden in what it said was the second raid by the Rwandan Hutu group in six days.
The M23 rebels said they took up arms over what they call the government's failure to respect a March 23, 2009, peace deal that envisaged their integration into the Congolese army. Their name comes from the date of the previous deal. - Reuters