Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo continued an advance on the regional capital of Goma, after taking control of the town of Rutshuru to the north. As Derek Kilner reports from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the clashes have displaced tens of thousands of civilians, many of them heading to camps around Goma.
Heavy fighting continued Wednesday between the National Congress for People's Defense, a rebel group led by former Congolese general Laurent Nkunda, and Congolese government forces.
Residents of the provincial capital Goma were fleeing the city amid fears of the rebel advance, even as tens of thousands of displaced persons headed towards the city after earlier fighting to the north. The Associated Press news agency reported that the rebels had reached the Kibati refugee camp, five kilometers outside Goma. And the AFP has reported that the Congolese military has abandoned Goma.
Fighting also continued around the town of Kibumba, 30 kilometers north of Goma, near the border with Rwanda. Congolese officials have accused Rwandan troops and tanks of
backing Nkunda's offensive. Rwanda has denied involvement, but has accused Congolese troops of firing across the border.
Angola's state media has reported that the Congolese government has asked for assistance, raising fears that the fighting could draw in other countries in the region.
Angola, Rwanda and other states were active in the 1998 to 2003 civil war in DRC that killed over five million people, and which has been called Africa's world war.
The U.N. refugee agency reported Tuesday that some 30,000 civilians were arriving at camps around Goma. But as the rebel advance continues they may join residents of the town, who have begun leaving towards Bukavu to the south, or east into Rwanda.
Oxfam's Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Congo, Ellie Kemp, told VOA from Kinshasa, that there are also reports of civilians fleeing the town of Rutshuru, 100 kilometers to the north of Goma, near the border with Uganda, after rebels took the town on Tuesday.
"There is little provision in those areas simply because humanitarian access has been made near-impossible and in many cases impossible by the insecurity," said Kemp. "That's why it's
so important that the warring parties lay down their weapons and come back to the political process."
Thousands of civilians displaced by earlier clashes had been staying in the town, as well as some 50 international humanitarian workers. United Nations peacekeepers attempted to evacuate the aid workers, but their convoy was blocked by civilians and government troops, according to a U.N. spokesman.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, known by the French acronym MONUC, has been backing government forces in countering the rebels. UN helicopters have fired on rebel positions, and officials have pledged to defend Goma. But the U.N.'s top official in the country, Alan Doss, told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the mission was stretched thin, and appealed for more troops. Congo's President Laurent Kabila also asked for additional international forces.
With 17,000 troops, the mission is the U.N.'s largest in the world, but only about 6,000 are currently in the area around Goma. The peacekeepers have often taken an active
role in response to fighting. In December, they helped repel another offensive by Nkunda's troops on Goma. But their presence has also stirred discontent. In recent
days, demonstrators have thrown rocks at UN offices and vehicles in Goma.
Nkunda says he is protecting eastern Congo's Tutsi minority ethnic group from attacks by the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu rebel group, many of whose members participated in
that country's 1994 genocide, and which Nkunda says has received support from Congo's military.
Nkunda signed a peace deal with the government in January. But fighting broke out again in August, with some 250,000 people displaced so far. That comes on top of an
estimated 800,000 already displaced from earlier fighting in the region.
On Wednesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for an end to the fighting, and said he had sent senior aides to negotiate with the warring parties. The EU's top
foreign policy official, Javier Solana called on both sides to exercise restraint. The top U.S. diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, who was attending a regional meeting on
Somalia in Nairobi on Wednesday, is expected in Congo on Thursday