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GOMA, DR Congo – Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, November 20, seized the key eastern city of Goma amid warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe, with the United Nations and others reporting killings, abductions, looting and extortion of civilians.
Locals however cheered and applauded two vehicles full of rebels as they drove around the city centre after fighters of the M23 movement marched into the city facing little resistance.
Witnesses reported that rebel chief Sultani Makenga had arrived in the capital of mineral-rich North Kivu province, capping a week-long advance by the M23.
In a radio broadcast, rebel spokesman Vianney Kazarama appealed for calm and ordered police and government soldiers to surrender on Wednesday morning at Goma’s football stadium.
While the rebels claimed to have captured both the city and its airport, a UN spokesman said peacekeepers were in control of the airport and that UN forces were still on patrol in the city.
The UN has around 1,500 “quick reaction” peacekeepers in Goma, part of some 6,700 troops in North Kivu province, backing government forces against the rebels.
The UN defended its peacekeepers after Goma fell, saying a battle for the city would have put civilians at risk.
“Fifteen hundred in a city of a million, there has to be a value judgement made,” said UN deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
“Do you open fire and put civilians at risk or do you hold your fire, continue your patrols, observe what is happening and remind the M23 that they are subject to international humanitarian and human rights law.”
France on Tuesday called for a review of the peacekeepers’ mandate to allow them to engage directly with rebel forces, not merely to protect civilians.
“Giving them a mandate that does not allow them to intervene is absurd,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told journalists.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a new condemnation of “grave” human rights violations by the rebels.
“Reports indicate that the M23 has wounded civilians, is continuing abductions of children and women, is destroying property and is intimidating journalists and those who have attempted to resist their control,” spokesman Del Buey told reporters.
Retreating government troops have also been accused of looting.
Ban vowed Sunday that peacekeepers would stay in Goma, after UN combat helicopters and government troops failed to stop the rebel advance.
The rebels have been blamed for hundreds of deaths since they launched their uprising in April. UN experts have accused neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of backing the M23, a charge both countries deny.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes or refugee camps around Goma, a city of about one million that is sheltering tens of thousands of refugees.
Aid group Oxfam described the situation as “a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale” and urged the international community to act.
In a report, it said civilians were being raped, kidnapped and killed, as well as “being subjected to an unprecedented level” of extortion and looting.
DR Congo President Joseph Kabila meanwhile urged people to defend the nation’s sovereignty.
In a televised address to the nation, he alluded to Rwanda’s alleged role in the conflict.
“DR Congo is today confronted with a difficult situation,” Kabila said. “When a war is imposed, one has an obligation to resist. I ask that the entire population defend our sovereignty.”
In Goma, few locals ventured outside their homes on Tuesday.
“What country are we in?” one bewildered woman who gave her name as Suzanne Bita asked, telling AFP: “The people who have just arrived come from Rwanda.”
The M23, formed by former members of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group, mutinied in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the regular army.
The Tutsis are the minority ethnic group of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the target of the 1994 genocide in that country that claimed an estimated 800,000 lives.
Kabila and Kagame were both in Kampala on Tuesday for talks on the crisis. As he left for the Ugandan capital, Kabila said he would be “presenting proof against the countries mentioned”.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said earlier that “political dialogue is the only way to resolve the ongoing conflict” and pledged to work towards a “full and durable peace”.
The rebels on Tuesday also took control of the border posts between Goma and Gisenyi, the town on the Rwandan side of the border, an AFP journalist said.
In Gisenyi, people seemed relieved at the rebel takeover.
“They welcomed them with cheers because the government soldiers had fled,” leaving a security vacuum, said a man who had fled Goma and who gave his name only as Alain.
Rwandan Jean-Bosco said: “We can only be happy, because it is over…. It was the (Kinshasa) authorities who stirred up the hatred” of Congolese Tutsis, sometimes branded as “foreigners” in the DR Congo.
Two wars that shook the whole of DR Congo between 1996 and 1997 and then again from 1998 to 2002 both began in the Kivu region, with Rwanda and Uganda both 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 the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was toppled in 1997, remains one of the world’s least developed countries despite a wealth of cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold. – Phil Moore, Agence France-Presse