Kinshasa - Rebels in Congo, who UN experts say are backed by neighbouring Rwanda, reached the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma on Sunday after pushing back government troops, despite UN peacekeepers firing back from helicopter gunships.
The rebels, known as M23, are led by mutinying soldiers who rose up eight months ago, accusing the Democratic Republic of Congo's government of failing to respect a 2009 peace agreement to integrate insurgents from a previous rebellion into the army.
They have now fought four days of battles to come closer than ever to Goma, home to a million people, including hundreds of thousands of refugees who have converged there as the rebels advanced elsewhere, and are now fleeing again.
Rebels have repeatedly said they do not plan to capture the city, which sits at the Rwandan border on the north shore of Lake Kivu in the foothills of mist-covered volcanoes. Goma is a provincial capital and headquarters of UN peacekeepers.
Thousands of displaced people were abandoning camps in the north of the city to escape the advancing rebels, said Tariq Riebl, humanitarian programme co-ordinator for Oxfam aid agency. Goma residents were trying to evacuate families, while trucks full of Congolese soldiers were seen leaving the city on Sunday.
“The question now is, what does this (fighting) mean? Are M23 going to take Goma? Nobody knows,” he said.
Colonel Vianney Kazarama, spokesman for the M23 rebels, said fighters had advanced to within two kilometres of Goma and would hold their position around five km outside the city.
“We're not going to take the airport, we are responding to an attack by the army ... We're just doing this to break the capacity of the FARDC (Congolese army),” Kazarama told Reuters.
“The situation remains under control,” he said later in a text message.
UN experts say Rwanda, a small but militarily capable neighbour that has intervened in Congo repeatedly over the past 18 years, is behind the M23 revolt. Rwanda denies this.
The Congolese army has proven little match for the rebels, and a UN peacekeeping force in the region tasked with protecting civilians has been unable to halt their advance.
Earlier, Colonel Olivier Hamuli, a spokesman for the Congolese army, told Reuters there was combat about five km from the airport. He spoke briefly before the line was cut.
The United Nations has about 6 700 peacekeeping troops in North Kivu, including about 1 400 troops in and around Goma. UN spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the mission was carrying out helicopter strikes in support of the Congolese army.
“The United Nations peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, engaged throughout the day supporting the FARDC to protect civilians and in self-defence, including carrying out sorties and firing from attack helicopter missions that have fired rockets and cannon rounds,” Dwyer said in an email from New York.
“The situation in Goma is extremely tense,” Dwyer said. “There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23's hands and/or be seriously destabilised as a result of the fighting.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the rebel offensive and urged M23 to “immediately cease its attacks and any further military advances toward the city of Goma.” His appeal echoed a similar call made by the UN Security Council after an emergency meeting on Congo on Saturday.
UN sanctions monitoring experts recommended last week that the Security Council sanction a number of Rwandan officials for supporting the M23 rebels. Congo's government has also urged the council to sanction Rwandans accused of backing M23.
The UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Saturday the M23 rebels had received sophisticated equipment, including night vision capacity and 120mm mortars.
More than three-quarters of a million people have fled their homes since the latest fighting in eastern Congo erupted in April when a group of soldiers mutinied to form the M23 group.
European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton called on the rebels to halt their offensive on Goma.
“We are particularly preoccupied by the fate of more than 70 000 internally displaced persons who have started leaving the camp of Kanyaruchinya, north of Goma,” she said.
Thomas D'Aquin Muiti, president of a local non-governmental organisation in North Kivu province, said reassurances from the rebels that they would not enter Goma were not to be trusted.
“I think everyone in the town is sceptical of M23 ... the town is emptying ... If the international community allows M23 to take Goma it'll be a humanitarian catastrophe,” Muiti said.
More than 5 million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease in wars in Congo since 1998, making it one of the deadliest conflicts since World War Two. - Reuters