Thursday, October 30, 2008

DRC News Bulletin: MONUC, CNDP Rebels in Standoff; Border Clashes With Rwanda Reported, etc.

UN and Congolese rebels in standoff

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (AFP) - - The leader of Congolese rebels warned UN forces blocking their way to the refugee-swollen city of Goma on Thursday that they would open fire if the UN tried to prevent their takeover of the city.

Around 800 peacekeepers from the UN's MONUC force are the only obstacle to a complete rebel takeover of the strategic eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city after government forces fled the rebel advance on Wednesday.

The UN Security Council has condemned the rebel assault, and begun moves to send troop reinforcements to Goma.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said he wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with UN peacekeepers, but would not shirk a fight for the city if necessary.

"We will respect MONUC. We cannot engage them, but if they shoot at us, they are soldiers, we will have to defend ourselves," he told AFP in a telephone interview conducted in English.

"MONUC cannot refuse me to go to Goma. They are incapable of securing the people of Goma so how can they refuse me to go there."

Nkunda's forces declared a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday after being kept at around 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Goma by MONUC helicopter gunships.

UN forces had blocked tens of thousands of people displaced by the fighting from entering Goma, a French aid group said Thursday.

"In Goma, tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting are trapped at the gates of the city by MONUC," the Secours Catholique said.

The UNHCR said 45,000 displaced people had fled a camp outside the city on Wednesday, panicked by a rushed withdrawal of government forces.

The UN is meanwhile scrambling to bring in extra troops from other parts of eastern DRC.

"We are trying to bring additional troops to protect the civilians in Goma in the coming three to seven days," the head of UN peacekeeping Alain Le Roy told reporters.

The 17,000-strong MONUC has roughly 6,000 troops deployed in Nord-Kivu to bolster weak government forces in their battle with disciplined, Nkunda forces.

France's UN Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert told reporters that European Union foreign ministers would meet in Brussels Monday to discuss various options to bolster MONUC.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Wednesday that Paris backed sending an EU battle group of up to 1,500 troops to DRC.

This follows a call by DRC President Joseph Kabila for the dispatch of a "multinational force" to beef up MONUC.

Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said he was in favour of sending 2,000-3,000 European troops to the conflict-hit area.

"I think that European military action makes sense... Humanitarian corridors need to be opened up and a cease-fire must be respected," De Gucht told the French language Le Soir newspaper.

The city was gripped by chaos Wednesday as government troops and residents scrambled to leave, panicked by the influx of some 20,000 refugees from further north.

Nkunda, speaking from the Masisi district of eastern Congo, where his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) forces are headquartered, said the inhabitants of Nord-Kivu were still vulnerable to atrocities committed by Congolese forces and an allied Rwandan Hutu rebel group.

He argued he would have to take control of Goma if MONUC proved unable to protect civilians there.

"If MONUC is incapable of securing Goma, then I have to," Nkunda said.

The 15-member UN Security Council unanimously adopted a non-binding statement late Wednesday that condemns moves by ethnic Tutsi warlord Nkunda's forces and "demands that it brings its operations to an end."

It also expressed concern at "reports (of) heavy weapons fire across the Democratic Republic of Congo-Rwanda border."

Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda while Kigali has repeatedly demanded that the DRC disarm Rwandan rebels believed to have played an important in the 1994 genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi minority.

UNITED NATIONS 30 October 2008 Sapa-AFP


The UN Security Council on Wednesday slammed the rebel push toward the provincial capital of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and expressed alarm at reports of heavy weapons fire across the country's border with Rwanda.

The 15-member body unanimously adopted a non-binding statement that condemned the recent offensive by a force loyal to ethnic Tutsi warlord Laurent Nkunda and "demands that it brings its operations to an end."

It also expressed concern at "reports to heavy weapons fire across the Democratic Republic of Congo-Rwanda border."

KINSHASA 30 October 2008 Sapa-AFP


Kivu, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, is the
violent epicentre of the tensions and conflicts that rack the Great Lakes area.

The region borders four states - Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - and all the problems and horrors of the region have spilled over into it: ethnic and political conflicts, land disputes, massive flights by Rwandan refugees - almost a million in 1994 - and the presence of tribal and Rwandan Hutu militias and bands of Burundian and Ugandan rebels.

The region is split into two provinces, Nord-Kivu and Sud-Kivu, and suffers from the "resource curse" of natural mineral wealth and fertile land that yields three harvests a year. It was here that Rwandan Hutu rebels sought refuge after the 1994 genocide.

Various groups have moved into the area, where relations are
fraught. From the 18th century Banyarwandas, communities of Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu origin, speaking kinyarwanda (Rwanda's official language), began to arrive. Tensions between the two groups have deepened over the last 20 years.

In the 1980s Mobutu Sese Seko, in power in the country that was then called Zaire, exploited nationality issues to marginalise the inhabitants of Rwandan origin.

The wars of 1996 and 1998 began in the two Kivu provinces, which border Rwanda and Burundi, and the two most serious mutinies since the second war ended in 2002 involved DRC Tutsi troops in the Kivu region.

Twice, in 1996-1997 and between 1998 and 2002, Rwanda sent troops across the border to back the rebels. It justified its actions in the east of the DRC by citing its security needs in the light of the presence of Rwandan Hutu militias, accused by Kigali of active participation in the mass slaughter of Tutsis in 1994.

The fighting contributed to the emergence of a number of local armed groups and the Hutu rebels, who had aided the government forces in the war, regrouped in 2001 into a unit calling itself the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

At the end of August 2007 Nord-Kivu was the scene of clashes between the national army and rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) loyal to Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi and former general in the DRC army, stripped of his post, who briefly seized Bukavu, the capital of Sud-Kivu.

A peace plan called "Amani" (the kiswahili word for peace) was launched in January 2008 after a deal was signed in Goma, capital of Nord-Kivu, by armed groups including the government's army, Nkunda's CNDP and a tribal militia, the Mai Mai-Pareco. But the Hutu rebel FDLR did not sign.

Its centrepiece was an "act of engagement" providing for an
immediate ceasefire followed by a progressive disengagement of troops on the ground as a prelude to their demobilisation.

Fighting resumed in Nord-Kivu on August 28.

GOMA, Congo 30 October 2008 Sapa-AP


Firing wildly, Congolese soldiers commandeered cars, taxis and motorbikes in a retreat from advancing rebel fighters, joining tens of thousands of terrified refugees struggling to stay ahead of the violence.

As gunfire crackled in this eastern provincial capital, the Tutsi rebels said they had reached the outskirts of Goma and declared a unilateral cease-fire Wednesday to prevent panic as the army retreats and residents flee.

Congo said Rwandan troops had crossed the border and attacked its soldiers - raising the specter that neighboring nations will again be drawn into Congo's war. Rwanda's Tutsi-led government immediately denied the charge, but Congo turned to Angola for help defending its territory.

As the chaos mounted, the United States announced its officials were leaving Goma and urged all American citizens to do the same. The State Department said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was heading to the capital, Kinshasa, and would arrive Thursday.

"There is a lot of violence," said spokesman Sean McCormack. "This is of deep concern to us."

Thousands of panicked refugees clogged the dirt roads out of Goma, struggling to reach safety.

Women carrying huge bundles on their heads and babies in their arms trudged alongside men pushing crude wooden carts crammed with clothing, food and cooking utensils. Bewildered children walked alongside. Young boys led goats and pigs on tethers as men on bicycles weaved in and out.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said about 45,000 people fled the nearby village of Kibati, where they had been sleeping in a makeshift camp in the open air, in a matter of hours on Wednesday.

"It was very chaotic," said agency spokesman Ron Redmond, speaking from Geneva. Most of the refugees had arrived only the day before after fleeing fighting farther north.

"They suddenly became very agitated and people began leaving the camp in a panic," Redmond said. They first headed toward Goma to the south, then changed direction and headed back out as it became clear the city was about to fall.

Goma's governor, Julien Mpaluku, acknowledged that panic was
spreading, but stressed that U.N. peacekeepers were still in charge and rebels had not yet entered the city. U.N. spokesman Madnodje Mounoubai said peacekeepers were deployed at the airport and at other strategic points.

A rebel statement said their fighters were just outside Goma.

"We are not far from Goma," rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was quoted as saying on the BBC's Web site. "But because there is a state of destabilization in the town we decided ... unilaterally to proclaim a cease-fire."

Nkunda, who has ignored calls by the Security Council to respect a U.N.-brokered truce signed in January, called on government forces to follow suit.

The U.N. Security Council condemned Nkunda's offensive Wednesday night and demanded "that it bring its operations to an end." The 15-nation council said any attack on civilians is "totally unacceptable" and called on Congo and Rwanda to restore stability in the region.

France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert expressed hope that the cease-fire will last "and we hope that tomorrow Mr Nkunda will announce that he stops his offensive."

Ripert's expressed support for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's initiative to try to facilitate dialogue between Rwanda and Congo and expresed hope that he will be able to send a high-level envoy to formalize talks between the neighboring countries "as soon as possible."

The U.N. says its biggest peacekeeping mission - a 17,000-strong force -is now stretched to the limit with the surge in fighting and needs more troops quickly. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa are the main contributors to the existing force.

But hopes for immediate backup from the European Union dimmed. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Wednesday the EU had considered sending troops to reinforce the peacekeepers in Congo but some countries refused.

Fears have grown of a wider war that could drag in Congo's
neighbors. Congo suffered back-to-back wars from 1996 to 2002 that embroiled eight African nations and became a rush at the country's vast mineral wealth.

The unrest in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which half a million Tutsis were slaughtered. More than a million Hutu extremists fled to Congo where they regrouped in a brutal militia that helps fuel the continuing conflict in Congo.

Rebel leader Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi and former general, quit the army several years ago, claiming the government of President Joseph Kabila was not doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu extremists.

On Wednesday, retreating government soldiers entered Goma along with the fleeing refugees, grabbing cars, taxis and motorbikes to help in their escape.

About 15 soldiers briefly commandeered a car carrying an AP
cameraman and photographer and demanded to be driven about 50 miles to the town of Saki.

"I'll kill you! I'll kill you!" yelled one soldier in front of an airfield near downtown Goma.

The soldiers grabbed boxes that looked like ammunition from the U.N. compound at the airport, piled them into the SUV and took off. Some of the soldiers piled onto the roof, others hung from open doors. The journalists finally managed to get away, jumping out of the moving vehicle at a military police checkpoint.

On another battlefront further north, government soldiers abandoned the town of Rutshuru and tens of thousands or refugees fled, according to U.N. officials and aid workers.

"It's incredibly dangerous," said Alice Gilbert, a project officer for the British medical agency Merlin. "Complete chaos broke out and everyone fled into the bush."

On the Web:
The U.N. mission in Congo,

KILIMANYOKA, Congo 29 October 2008 Sapa-AP


Bombs, rockets and mortar shells exploded in eastern Congo on
Wednesday, and the Congolese army claimed it came under attack by troops from neighboring Rwanda.

Congo's government has accused Rwanda's Tutsi-led government of sending troops across the nearby border to help the fighters of renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda. Rwanda denies it.

The bombardments could be heard by journalists at an army camp in eastern Congo. Jeeps of officers sped along the road stopping to give instructions to soldiers toting rocket launchers and assault rifles.

The bombardment appeared to be taking place less than five miles (eight kilometers) from a village where thousands of refugees huddled amid heavy rain.

Nkunda says he is fighting to protect the region's tiny Tutsi
minority. The rebels have vowed to take Congo's eastern provincial capital, Goma.

LUSAKA 29 October 2008 Sapa-dpa


While tens of thousands of people are fleeing renewed fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of victims of the last war from 1998 to 1993 are returning to their homes in the south of the country from neighbouring Zambia.

After nine years in refugee camps in Zambia, more and more Congolese refugees are packing for home, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Zambia said Wednesday.

The refugees are being repatriated by road to their homes in Katanga province, which is deemed safe, deputy representative for the UNHCR Zambia, Fernando Alvarado, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Despite heavy fighting in eastern Congo between UN-backed government forces and rebel forces loyal to renegade army general Laurent Nkunda, the UNHCR said an influx of refugees was was not expecting in Zambia, because the affected region - North Kivu province - is far from the Congo-Zambia border.

"The UNHCR and the governments of Zambia and DRC considers the conditions of some areas of DRC suitable for the return of refugees," Alvarado says, stressing the return was voluntary.

The areas that are receiving returnees have been cleared of
landmines and have basic services, including schools, health clinics and clean drinking water, the UNHCR said.

The impoverished former British colony of Zambia is hosting more than 86,000 refugees from African conflicts, of which around 56,000 are accommodated in refugee camps.

Congolese make up the majority, followed by Angolans and a smaller number from Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia.

Between May and December last year, 7,325 Congolese refugees were repatriated by the UNHCR.

The rate of return has picked up this year, with a total of 8,038 returning since May, leaving around 39,000 in two camps.

JOHANNESBURG 29 October 2008 Sapa


Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma will leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday ahead of President Kgalema Motlanthe's working visit, the foreign affairs department said.

Motlanthe's visit is scheduled for October 30 and 31.

Department spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa said the visit was aimed at assessing progress on bilateral projects.

"It is expected that during this visit a strong emphasis will be placed on devising mechanisms and processes to monitor more closely the achievements and progress made with bilateral projects, and also consider the possibilities of trilateral agreements in some areas," he said.

President Motlanthe would meet DRC President Joseph Kabila after a senior officials' meeting and a ministerial session on Thursday.

Motlanthe's delegation includes trade and industry minister Mandisi Mpahlwa, defence minister Charles Nqakula, health minister Barbara Hogan and public services minister Richard Baloyi.

South Africa was committed to a "strategy for post conflict
reconstruction and development in the DRC".

The country was assisting the DRC with its economic development, institutional capacity building, and security sector reform, said Mamoepa.

NAIROBI 29 October 2008 Sapa-AFP


Washington's top diplomat for Africa on Wednesday urged rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to halt their march to the strategic town of Goma and return to previous agreements.

Jendayi Frazer, the assistant secretary of state for African
affairs, said Congolese renegade general Laurent Nkunda and his National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) will be held accountable for actions in Goma.

"I should say, they should not go into Goma, they will be held accountable for actions taking place (there). They should return to a political process," Frazer told a press conference in Nairobi.

"I am also going to the Congo tommorrow and then onwards to Rwanda to discuss the situation taking place in eastern Congo, specifically to urge a return to the Goma agreement to resolve the internal crisis in Congo with general Nkunda's CNDP forces.

"We certainly call on those forces to stop the attacks that have displaced many individuals, so many Congolese people," Frazer added.

In January, rebels operating in the eastern DRC signed an accord with the government that involved a ceasefire, demobilisation of troops and an amnesty.

"We do not need a new agreement, we need agreements that are
currently on the table to be implemeted," Frazer said.

The US diplomat rejected claims by Nkunda that his forces were fighting to protect minority Tutsi tribesmen in the troubled central African nation.

"The CNDP cannot protect the Tutsi population, that excuse to
continue to attack innocent civilians and displace innocent civilians is not acceptable," she said.

The rebels late Wednesday declared a unilateral ceasefire even though the collapse of government resistance left UN peacekeeping forces - which earlier used helicopter gunships to stall the rebel advance - as the only obstacle to a complete takeover of Goma, the capital of Nord-Kivu province.

The rebel advance left government forces, residents and tens of thousands of refugees scrambling to leave Goma, officials said.

Combat between Nkunda's men and government forces has escalated since the weekend, despite a plea from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for an end to the fighting.

The government in Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of actively
supporting Nkunda.

"We have no evidence that Rwanda is fighting directly in eastern Congo, but we do believe that Rwandan territory has been used to provide support to CNDP. It is a very, very easy border to cross, supplies can go back and forth easily," Frazer said.

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