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Rebels advance, civilians flee in eastern Congo

Rebels vowing to take Congo's eastern provincial capital advanced toward Goma Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rebels vowing to take Congo's eastern provincial capital advanced toward Goma Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing. Chaos gripped a separate area as government soldiers fired on civilians and aid workers trying to escape, the top U.N. envoy said.

The U.N.'s Alan Doss said peacekeepers were forced to "respond," apparently meaning they shot at troops who are supposed to be their allies, after the soldiers opened fire on those trying to leave Rutshuru, a strategic town north of Goma. He vowed to keep Rutshuru and other towns out of rebel hands.

"We are going to remain there, and we are going to act against any effort to take over a city or major population center by force," he told reporters in New York in a videoconference.

U.N. helicopter gunships were being used on fronts near Rutshuru and Kilimanyoka, which is about seven miles north of Goma. They were hampered by rebels' use of civilians as shields, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvia van den Wildenberg told The Associated Press.

The rebels also are fighting around Rugari, a town between Goma and Rutshuru, as well as northwest of Goma around Sake — using several fronts to scatter government forces and U.N. peacekeepers.

By late afternoon Tuesday, it appeared the use of the gunships was paying off. About 200 government soldiers were nearly two miles closer to the rebels than the line of the troops that retreated. They were being resupplied from a truck loaded with rocket-propelled grenades.

Panicked civilians flee
Aid agencies in Rutshuru said their workers could hear bombs exploding as the rebels closed in and angry and frightened civilians and soldiers blocked their evacuation by U.N. peacekeepers.

The mob looted humanitarian centers and the belongings of about 50 trapped aid workers in Rutshuru, said Ivo Brandau, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA.

Brandau said tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing that town, heading north and east toward the Ugandan border. Rutshuru had a population of about 30,000 residents and the same number of refugees.

Doctors Without Borders said its doctors and nurses trapped at Rutshuru Hospital had treated 70 war wounded since Sunday but most patients had fled the hospital.

Meanwhile, a sudden influx of an estimated 30,000 people tripled in a matter of hours the size of a camp in Kibati, a few miles from the front line, said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

"It's chaos up there," Redmond told The Associated Press from Geneva, citing U.N. staff in Congo. "These crowds of people coming down from the north have already started turning up there."

In Kibati, young men lobbed rocks Tuesday at three U.N. tanks also heading away from the battlefield. The U.N.'s peacekeeping mission is the agency's biggest in the world, with 17,000 troops.

"What are they doing? They are supposed to protect us," said Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse from Kibumba.

History of genocide
The unrest in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars. Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire brokered by the U.N. in January.

Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.

Nkunda's ambitions have expanded since he launched a fresh onslaught on Aug. 28. He now declares he will "liberate" all of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe with vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. Congo's vast mineral wealth helped fuel back-to-back wars from 1997 to 2003.

The U.N. says more than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last two months, joining 1.2 million displaced in previous conflicts in the east. Outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea have killed dozens in camps, compounding the misery.

Peacekeepers vs. rebels
On Monday, peacekeepers in attack helicopters fired at the rebels trying to stop them taking Kibumba, a village on the main road 30 miles north of Goma. But fleeing civilians say the fighters overran Kibumba anyway.

The rebels retaliated by firing a missile at one U.N. combat helicopter Monday, but missed, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said.

U.N. efforts to halt Nkunda's rebellion are complicated by the country's rugged terrain, dense tropical forests that roll over hills and mountains with few roads.

The chief U.N. mandate is to protect the population. But since the peace deal it also is supposed to help the Congolese army disarm and repatriate Hutu militiamen — by force if necessary.

Ethnic tensions
But Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, claimed Tuesday the Congolese army has abandoned dozens of its positions to Hutu militiamen.

"It's the Hutus who are on the front line and whom we are fighting, not the army," he said. U.N. peacekeepers "leave us no choice but to fight on."

Nkunda long has charged that Congolese soldiers fight alongside the militia of Hutus, an ethnic majority of about 40 percent in the region.

Some 800 Hutu militiamen have voluntarily returned to Rwanda, the U.N. says, but the fighters recruit and coerce Congolese Hutu children and young men into their ranks daily — far outnumbering those who have returned home.