Thousands of civilians flee rebel advance in DR Congo

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Thousands of civilians flee rebel advance in DR Congo

SAKE, DR Congo — Thousands of civilians on Friday fled a rebel advance in eastern DR Congo as regional leaders prepared a summit on the crisis which the UN said had blocked access to camps sheltering tens of thousands of displaced people.

By (AFP)

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Published: Fri 23 Nov 2012, 9:51 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:49 PM

The M23 rebel group, army mutineers who took the regional capital Goma on Tuesday and the key town of Sake the next day, appeared to halt their rampant advance just south of Sake after battles with government forces and an allied local militia, a United Nations source told AFP.

Thousands of people were fleeing Sake heading east toward Goma, and the local head of a relief agency reported numerous casualties.

“There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, the head of the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), told AFP, without giving specific figures.

UN experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23 — a charge both countries deny — and the guerrillas’ escalating assault has raised fears of wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region.

The army has proved unable to contain the rebellion, despite being backed by a massive UN peacekeeping operation that deployed attack helicopters in a bid to protect civilians from the M23’s advance.

UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said the UN was considering using drones for the first time to monitor the fighting.

“Unarmed aerial vehicles, drones for monitoring the movements of armed groups, are one tool we are considering,” Dwyer told AFP.

“Of course, we would do this carefully, in full cooperation with the government of the DR Congo, and trialling their most effective uses for information-gathering to help implement our mandate to protect civilians,” he added.

Diplomats said peacekeeping chiefs had been in contact with the governments of DR Congo and of Rwanda about the sensitive move, which could set a precedent that would worry other UN members.

The UN is also considering bringing in extra troops for its 17,500-strong peacekeeping operation and redeploying its current force. UN leader Ban Ki-moon is to recommend options to the UN Security Council soon.

Protest for peace

The UN refugee agency meanwhile warned the fighting had blocked access to all but one of the 31 camps for displaced people in North Kivu.

“UNHCR is extremely concerned about the situation of displaced people in... North Kivu province, especially children and other vulnerable groups,” said spokesman Adrian Edwards.

The European Union also added its voice to the international chorus demanding the rebels stop their advance, “starting with the immediate stop of the M23 offensive and its retreat from Goma.”

The rebels have refused to withdraw from Goma unless President Joseph Kabila agrees to peace talks.

Regional leaders are due to hold a summit on the crisis Saturday in Kampala, including Kabila, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. M23 leader Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero was in the Ugandan capital Friday at the request of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the rebels said.

In DR Congo’s capital Kinshasa, some 1,500 kilometres west of the troubled Kivu region, several thousand women marched down the city’s main boulevard to protest against the violence.

“Peace throughout the country,” read the signs carried by the demonstrators, who included Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers.

And across Lake Kivu from Goma, residents of Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, waited anxiously to see if the city would be the rebels’ next target. Boat service to Goma had been halted and residents complained that prices had risen sharply.

The M23 was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the military under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.

The North and South Kivu regions are the easternmost of DR Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, and have a history of unrest.

The region is rich in cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key component of mobile phones.

Two wars that shook DR Congo between 1996 and 1997 and then again from 1998 to 2002 both began in the Kivu region, with Rwanda and Uganda playing active or behind-the-scenes roles in much of the fighting.

Since 1998 more than three million people are estimated to have died from combat, disease and hunger and 1.6 million have been left homeless.

The former Belgian colony, known as Zaire under dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was toppled in 1997, remains one of the world’s least developed countries despite its mineral wealth.

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