KAMPALA, Uganda — Heavy shelling and gunfire on Monday broke a tense standoff between Congolese rebels on the outskirts of the eastern Congolese city of Goma and government soldiers backed byUnited Nations troops who were hunkered down inside, as fears also rose of a direct military confrontation between the Democratic Republic of Congo and its neighbor Rwanda.
The Congolese government rejected an ultimatum made by rebels Sunday night to withdraw from Goma and accused Rwanda, which a United Nations panel has said has links to the March 23 rebels, of sending two battalions of troops over the border into Congo to fight on their behalf and firing a rocket that injured five civilians in Goma.
Well no suprises there. Governments don't tend to follow insurgents instructions.
Rwanda has called the accusations “absolutely false and diversionary” and said it was “exercising restraint as of now,” according to a military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita. Rwanda’s military accused the Congolese Army of bombing the nearby Rwandan border city of Gisenyi, killing one person and injuring two others.
Goma and Gisenyi effectivly one city with a border running through it. Goma is on the left.
Amid the back and forth, Sekombi Katondolo, a radio journalist inside Goma, said that Congolese troops were aligning along the border and that fears of an escalation in the battle were high.
“It’s really scary,” the radio journalist said, as fighting between government forces and rebel soldiers around Goma city broke out Monday afternoon. “We knew it would happen, but we didn’t think it would happen all of a sudden.”
Witnesses in Goma said heavy explosions pounded central Goma on Monday afternoon and a general panic by residents resulted in a mass exodus of civilians from the city center. Tariq Riebl, a humanitarian officer for the organization Oxfam in Goma, said that there had been reports of “fighting, looting, complete panic” across parts of Goma by Monday evening and that it was unclear whether rebels had come to control certain areas of the city.
A United Nations official stationed across the street from Goma’s international airport said he could hear bombs exploding around the airport.
Scores were believed to be injured in fighting Monday, and several killed, but there was no clear tally of casualties.
A rebel offer to withdraw from Goma in exchange for concessions from the government did little to bring the two sides together. “To allow a peaceful exit,” a rebel news releasecirculated Monday morning said, “our Movement demands” the “complete demilitarization of the city and the airport of Goma,” except for United Nationspeacekeepers, and also “direct political negotiations with the Movement of March 23.”
But Congo’s government rejected the ultimatum, and turned attention toward Rwanda. “We are resisting an aggression that Rwanda is launching against us,” said a Congolese government spokesman, Lambert Mende, “We have not yet declared war, but we are ready to face it. This is our country, our duty.”
The United Nations expressed bewilderment and frustration at the rebel attack.
“They were able to bypass all of the positions we had,” said Hiroute Guebre-Sellasie, who heads the United Nations peacekeeping office in North Kivu Province, where Goma is situated. “We are not facing a conventional force.” Regardless of the relevence of this news story this is one of the most astonishing disgraceful incidents of this conflict.
Ms. Guebre-Sellasie said that while United Nations soldiers had prepared for certain attacks, rebels were filtering “beyond sight” through a national park and “coming from other sides.”
The sequence of events for people in Goma is strikingly similar to events four years ago when many of the same rebel soldiers, under a different name, also captured large swaths of territory.
“The presumption by most of us was that there wouldn’t be this type of fighting in Goma, but that there would be a resolution,” said Mr. Riebl, of Oxfam. “It is probably worse than people expected.”