UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon vowed on Sunday that peacekeepers will stay in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) city of Goma after UN combat helicopters and government troops failed to stop a rebel advance amid growing international alarm.
Government troops and local officials were already fleeing the city, several sources said.
The M23 rebels, army mutineers whose uprising in April has unleashed fresh unrest in the DR Congo’s chronically unstable east, are now near the airport of Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich region.
The UN warned there was a “real threat” that Goma would fall. Rebels had already warned that they would seize the city if they came under attack from the army.
However, Ban said the UN troops “will remain present in Goma and will continue all efforts to robustly implement its mandate to the fullest of its capabilities with regard to the protection of civilians.”
The UN secretary-general “emphasizes that any actions to undermine or target MONUSCO [the UN mission] will not be tolerated,” according to a statement released by his office.
The UN has about 6,700 troops in Nord Kivu Province, backing government forces against rebels who have moved to the edge of Goma in recent days. About 1,500 of them are in Goma.
UN attack helicopters have staged cannon and rocket strikes against the rebels, but have not been able to stop the steady advance toward the capital, Nord Kivu, a key mineral producing region.
Government troops said they were trying to avoid a “bloodbath” in the area.
In New York, UN peacekeeping spokesman Kieran Dwyer said that UN forces were supporting government troops in the region by firing cannon and rockets at the rebels, after similar action on Saturday.
“The situation in Goma is extremely tense. There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23’s hands,” Dwyer said.
After a three-month truce, fighting in the region resumed on Thursday, just two days after the UN and the US imposed sanctions on the leader of the M23 group.
The rebels are ethnic Tutsi former soldiers who mutinied in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the regular army.
The EU joined the UN in calling on the rebels to halt their advance.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed their deep concern about the violence.
Olivier Hamuli, an army spokesman in Nord Kivu Province, told local radio there had been “rough” fighting around the airport.
“Our concern is to avoid a bloodbath in the city,” he said.
However, Celestin Sibomana, a spokesman for the province, spoke of “a rout,” and denounced what he said was the inaction of the UN peacekeepers.
Earlier on Sunday, an army intelligence colonel said on condition of anonymity that fighting had reached a displaced people’s camp in Kanyarucinya, 10km from Goma.
“All the displaced have left the camp and are apparently now in the city of Goma,” he said.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affars and Security Policy Catherine Ashton expressed the EU’s concern for civilians caught up in the fighting, calling on all sides to give unrestricted access to aid workers.
However, the M23 denied its forces had reached the camp.