Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they’re ready to seize Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, in order to "save the population" from an upsurge of violence.
A spokesman for the M23 rebel movement, Vianney Kazarama, said Monday that if Congo’s President Joseph Kabila cannot control his army, the M23 will move in and take Goma to save civilian lives.
His threat comes after a week in which at least 10 people in Goma have been killed in a series of shootings and an explosion for which no one has taken responsibility. Rebels are blaming the military for the violence. Authorities in Goma and some civil society groups allege that the M23 is responsible.
The rebels’ front line positions are less than 50 kilometers from Goma, but several thousand regular army troops and a brigade of U.N. peacekeepers with tanks and armored vehicles stand in the way of the M23, whose forces are thought to number fewer than 1,500.
Twenty people have been arrested in connection with the killings, including some soldiers. Faustin Ntibategerra, a researcher who has worked for Human Rights Watch, says he thinks the M23 is connected to the deaths.
He told VOA that as the M23 consists of defectors from the army, the group might have sympathizers still in the army whom the M23 might have ordered to carry out these killings.
Congo's Interior Minister Richard Muyej visited Goma recently and spoke of an ‘over-militarization’ of the town, as a result of the M23 rebellion, and of lax discipline in the security services.
Ntibategerra says no reason has been given for that lax discipline.
He said that despite the interior minister talking about 'over-militarization,' the problem is poor government support for the military, whose members are not fed or paid properly, and whose wives and children have to beg in the street. It would hardly be surprising, he said, if some soldiers collaborated with bandits to make enough money to survive.
Ntibategerra says the victims of the recent violence were just ordinary people, none of them well-known except for the owner of a gasoline station who was shot dead at night outside his home.
The researcher says some of the victims of the recent violence may have been targeted at random by people who just want to spread fear. The victims include a soldier and a bar owner who were both shot dead at her bar, and several people killed in a grenade blast, including the soldier thought to have been carrying the grenade.
The United Nations military mission to Congo has warned the M23 that it will take all measures necessary to stop any attempt to take Goma.
U.N. Security Council officials have alleged that Rwanda is supporting the M23 rebels, but Rwanda denies the charge.