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Tense Calm Returns to Eastern Congo City

  • Derek Kilner

Relative calm returned to Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as rebels positioned outside the city appeared to respect a unilateral cease-fire. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in recent days, as the rebels battled government forces, advancing to within a few kilometers of Goma. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.

After four days of fighting, as rebels from the National Congress for People's Defense advanced to the edge of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the group's leader Laurent Nkunda, declared a unilateral cease-fire late Wednesday.

The advance of the rebels had caused panic in Goma, as government soldiers and civilians fled the city.

The U.N. Radio Okapi reported widespread looting late Wednesday, and that nine people had been killed and three raped.

Nkunda told the France 24 television network that he wanted to avoid instability in Goma.

"We ceased fire and now we are back to about 12 kilometers from Goma," he said. "We did it because the town was destabilized in the evening by FARDC government forces, looting, raping, and robbing people in Goma."

Madnodje Mounoubai, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force, known by the French acronym MONUC, said the mission is working to restore security in the city.

"The town appears to be calm, quiet, even though we can see some tension. There was some fighting around the town till about 1:00 am this morning, but after that everything is quiet. MONUC is patrolling the streets. We have no shooting, we have no fighting. The troops are not advancing so we think the ceasefire is holding," he said.

Mounoubai said many of the government soldiers had left Goma, but some remained. MONUC has about 800 troops in Goma.

Previous cease-fire agreements in the region have quickly broken down, and Nkunda has declared his intention to take control of Goma.

Officials with the U.N. peacekeeping mission have said its troops will defend Goma.

MONUC, has about 6,000 of its 17,000 peacekeepers deployed in North Kivu province. It has moved to redeploy some of its troops from other parts of the country, and has asked additional troops to be sent to the country.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the European Union presidency, has proposed sending a force of 1,500 European troops to the country. The EU deployed a similar peacekeeping force to Ituri province, to the north of Goma, in 2003.

Rwanda's foreign minister traveled to Congo for talks on the conflict, as did U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer.

Speaking Wednesday in Nairobi, Frazer called for Nkunda's forces to halt the offensive. She also played down accusations by the Congolese government that Rwanda has been involved in the fighting, a charge Rwanda and Nkunda have denied.

"We have no evidence that Rwanda is fighting directly in the conflict in Eastern Congo," she said. "We do believe that Rwandan territory has been used to provide support to CNDP. It is a very very tiny easy border to cross, and supplies can go back and forth rather easily."

Nkunda, who says he is fighting to protect the region's ethnic-Tutsi minority, has accused Congo's government of cooperating with the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu militia, many of whose members participated in that country's 1994 genocide. Rwanda has echoed that accusation.

The U.N. refugee agency says that about 45,000 civilians have fled toward Goma since the latest fighting began Sunday. UNICEF says it is now providing assistance to about 50,000 people in refugee camps outside Goma. Civilians have also been leaving Goma, with many Tutsis crossing into Rwanda.

International staff from humanitarian organizations including Oxam and Action Aid have withdrawn from Goma

Nkunda signed a peace agreement with the government in January, but fighting broke out again in August. More than 200,000 people have fled their homes, adding to a displaced population in the region that now numbers more than one million.

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