Mined roads and armed factions blocked U.N. officials Monday from pursuing reports of new clashes in eastern Congo, a U.N. spokesman said, as government authorities investigated a failed attempt to oust President Joseph Kabila.
Local correspondents for U.N.-funded radio in Congo reported skirmishes Monday between pro-government Mayi Mayi militia fighters and renegade ex-rebels 25 miles north of the important eastern city of Bukavu, near the border with Rwanda.
The U.N. spokesman, Sebastien Lapierre told The Associated Press in Bukavu that members of the United Nations’ 10,800-strong peacekeeping force could not confirm the latest clashes in Congo, Africa’s third-largest nation, saying mines and armed groups were blocking U.N. officials from reaching the area.
The fighting reportedly involved forces of Col. Jules Mutebutsi, one of two former rebel commanders who had seized control of Bukavu on June 2.
The surprise capture of Bukavu had represented the greatest military setback yet to Kabila’s 14-month-old transition government, which was assembled from loyalists, ex-rebels and opposition politicians at the end of Congo’s devastating 1998-2002 war.
Government forces retook Bukavu on Wednesday, sending the last renegade troops in the town running.
Regional government military commanders since then have claimed a series of running battles with Mutebutsi’s forces as they fled.
Refugees flood into Burundi
Heightened tensions since the recapture of Bukavu by the government have sent about 5,000 civilians crossing the border into Burundi, U.N. refugee agency officials said Monday.
Many of those fleeing are members of Congo’s ethnic Tutsi community. As members of the same ethnic group as the two renegade commanders who had taken Bukavu, the civilians had feared reprisals by the loyalist forces.
U.N. authorities have said they have received no confirmed reports of any violent campaigns against Congolese Tutsi. A U.N. team would begin formal investigations into that allegation Wednesday, Lapierre said.
A Congolese Tutsi civilian leader renewed the claims Monday, accusing government forces of “acts of genocide” against his kinsmen.
Speaking in the eastern city of Goma, Benoit Mubanda Kadage demanded protection and reparation for the Tutsi, saying they otherwise would pull out of Congo’s transition government.
Mutebutsi and a fellow renegade, Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda, earlier had given alleged atrocities against Congolese Tutsi as their reasons for taking Bukavu. Nkunda late last week retracted his charges, saying he had been misinformed.
The allegations are especially sensitive because they threaten to raise tensions with neighboring Rwanda, which invaded Congo in 1998 to try to rid the east of anti-Tutsi Rwanda Hutu fighters. Fighting that followed drew in armies of four other nations. It killed 3.3 million people by relief workers’ count.
Already, U.N. and relief officials say, this month’s renewed violence in the east and northeast have disrupted aid efforts to 3 million Congolese.
12 alleged coup plotters held
Meanwhile, in the capital, authorities on Monday were investigating a failed Friday coup attempt by members of Kabila’s presidential guard.
Twelve of those involved were in custody and would be shown to reporters at “a propitious moment,” said Simon Tshitenge, the vice minister for information.
Twenty other fugitives in the attempt, including the ringleader, Maj. Eric Lenge, were still at large and were believed to be south of Kinshasa, Tshitenge said.
Opposition politicians, ordinary citizens and some Western diplomats in the capital have questioned the genuineness of the coup attempt, demanding to know specifically how the handful of coup plotters managed to break their way out of a surrounded military camp after the alleged attempt failed.
Congolese lawmakers in parliament also were considering a probe. The opposition said it suspected that Kabila’s postwar power-share government was looking for a pretext to postpone elections promised for 2005.
Most of Congo, a former Belgian colony of 57 million people, has been relatively peaceful since the transitional administration that was meant to arrange the 2005 elections took office last year. Sporadic strife has continued in the eastern and northeastern regions.