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Fear of War Strikes Goma, Congo - 2004-07-18

Military leaders in Congo have summoned regional commanders to Kinshasa, following a week, during which hundreds of civilians fled the Congolese town of Goma, fearing war. Relative calm has returned to Goma, but the crisis is not over, as rebels remain at large.

The crisis in eastern Congo continued this week, and hundreds of civilians fled the lakeside town of Goma, fearing that the advance of government troops toward dissident army officer General Laurent Nkunda's stronghold, just to the south, would ultimately lead to war in the town.

But the panic appears to have eased. Fewer people were cramming into boats leaving Goma port, and there is hope that talks held in recent days between the local authorities and General Nkunda may result in a peaceful solution.

Meanwhile, clashes continue south of Goma, General Nkunda remains in his stronghold and there is no clear resolution to the crisis that has rocked the peace process put in place last year, following the official end of Congo's five-year war.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo involved six neighboring countries, and claimed three million lives, mostly from hunger and disease.

General Nkunda and fellow Congolese-Tutsi army officer Colonel Jules Mutebusi seized the town of Bukavu, 100 kilometers south of Goma in early June, saying they had done so to stop genocide they say was being carried out against Tutsis by the regional military commander.

The United Nations has said the genocide charge is false, and the two renegade officers left Bukavu under intense national and international pressure, with Colonel Mutebusi fleeing to neighboring Rwanda.

But General Nkunda has established himself in his base near Goma, and during the last week forces loyal to the government in Kinshasa have been advancing on his position. Sporadic clashes have taken place, but speculation over an imminent showdown with General Nkunda has been mounting, leading to the panic in Goma this week.

The volatility is heightened by the fact that Goma is run by military and regional authorities, which are members of the same former rebel group as the dissidents, and whose loyalties have been questioned.

Their party, RCD-Goma, was backed by Rwanda during Congo's war, and although now part of Congo's deeply divided transitional government, many RCD-Goma hard-liners sympathize with General Nkunda.

Congo's new army chief-of-staff summoned regional military commanders to Kinshasa.

But Goma's commander, General Obedi Rwibasira, has failed to turn up, further fueling speculation over his loyalties.