Congolese rebels seize Goma, take airport

2012-11-21 08:36
Goma – A rebel group believed to be backed by Rwanda has seized the strategic provincial capital of Goma in eastern Congo, home to more than one million people as well as an international airport in a development that threatens to spark a new regional war, officials and witnesses said.

Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city centre and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south.

Civilians ran down sidewalks looking for cover and children shouted in alarm. A man clutched a thermos as he ran.

Thousands of residents fled across the border to Rwanda, the much-smaller nation to the east which is accused of funnelling arms and recruits to the M23 rebels.

By early afternoon the gunfire had stopped and M23 soldiers marched down the potholed main boulevards, unimpeded.

Their senior commanders, who the United Nations has accused of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, paraded around the town in all-terrain vehicles, waving to the thousands of people who left their barricaded houses to see them.

The United Nations peace?keepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during yesterday’s battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesperson Olivier Hamuli, who expressed frustration over the lack of action by the peacekeepers.

“MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions (at the airport). We ask that the MONUSCO do more,” he said.

A UN spokesperson said in New York said the nearly 1 500 UN peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle.

The peacekeepers “cannot substitute for the efforts of national forces” in Congo, said spokesperson Eduardo del Buey.

Today the Security Council will review the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force in Congo.

A resolution adopted yesterday by the Security Council asks the UN secretary-general to recommend possible redeployment, and possible “additional force multipliers”.

The resolution, approved unanimously by the council, imposes targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze on the M23 rebel group leadership.

But it did not name two countries accused by Congo of supporting the rebels: Rwanda and Uganda.

The council demanded that the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, disarm and disband, and insisted on the restoration of the crumbing Congolese government authority in the country’s turbulent East.

The resolution also calls for an immediate end to external support to the rebels and asks the UN secretary-general to report on the allegations of foreign support while expressing its readiness to take appropriate measures.