Diplomats at the UN and regional mediators in Central Africa sought overnight yesterday to ward off a deeper conflict after rebels widely believed to be backed by Rwanda captured the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) city of Goma.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was to try to broker a meeting between the leaders of the DR Congo and Rwanda in Kampala yesterday, after the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Tuesday condemning the seizure of Goma and asking UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report on external support for the rebels.
The French government expressed broad frustrations with UN peacekeepers, who gave up the battle for the city of 1 million after the DR Congo’s army retreated, saying it was “absurd” that the UN force did not protect the city.
Kinshasa has accused Rwanda, whose army has repeatedly intervened in the DR Congo’s conflicts during the past 15 years, of backing the rebels. Kigali denies the charge and has called for dialogue. As night fell in Goma, the capital of North Kivu Province, the gunfire had died down and the streets were deserted, apart from some rebel patrols.
Rebels used local radio and TV stations to appeal for calm, but there are fears of human rights abuses and tens of thousands of people have already fled days of fighting between the rebels and UN-backed Congolese soldiers.
At the UN, the 15-member council approved the resolution drafted by France, releasing a statement that “demands the immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma, the cessation of any further advances by the M23 and that its members immediately, and permanently disband and lay down their arms.”
The council expressed “deep concern at reports indicating that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment, causing a significant increase of the military abilities of the M23, and demands that any and all outside support to the M23 cease immediately.”
While conflict has simmered almost constantly in the DR Congo’s east in recent years, this is the first time Goma has fallen to rebels since foreign occupying armies officially pulled out under peace deals at the end of the most recent 1998 to 2003 war.
Aid agencies have estimated that 5 million people have died from fighting and conflict-related disease since the 1998 war began.
Hundreds of rebels, who took up arms in April complaining that Kinshasa had failed to comply with the terms of a deal that ended a previous rebellion in 2009, poured into the lakeside town on Tuesday.
After sporadic gunfire, Congolese troops retreated to the west.
UN peacekeepers who had launched helicopter gunships to back the Congolese army did nothing to stop the rebels’ seizure.
“MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping force in the DR Congo] is 17,000 soldiers, but sadly it was not in a position to prevent what happened,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. “It is necessary that the MONUSCO mandate is reviewed.”
However, a senior UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal of civilian and military Congolese officials had left a void it could not fill alone.
“We’re not the army of any country, let alone the Congolese army, and it’s not for us to take positions by ourselves to stop a rebel attack or the movement of rebels,” the official said.
“Our job is to protect civilians,” the official added.
The M23 rebellion has aggravated tensions between the DR Congo and neighboring Rwanda, which Kinshasa says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing the chaotic region’s mineral wealth that includes diamonds, gold and coltan — used in mobile phones.
Officials in the office of Museveni, the regional mediator for the conflict, said the Uganda preident would seek to host a face-to-face meeting between DR Congo President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kampala yesterday.
Kinshasa on Tuesday rejected the idea of talks with rebels, but Rwanda’s foreign minister said the fall of Goma had shown there was no military solution to the crisis.
The capture of Goma will be an embarrassment for Kabila, who won re-election late last year in polls that provoked widespread riots.
There were pockets of demonstrations against the fall of Goma in other towns and Kabila faces the tricky choice between dialogue with the rebels, which will be politically unpopular, and trying to rally his scattered forces in North Kivu.