Democratic Republic of Congo’s army on Sunday gave pro-government militia fighters 48 hours to disarm or face military action as thousands more people fled renewed fighting in the eastern province of North Kivu.
Explosions and gunfire rang out before dawn in the hills around Rugari, a town of tin-roofed houses near the Rwandan and Ugandan borders, sending thousands of civilians fleeing towards the provincial capital Goma, about 35km to the south.
The latest clashes, which erupted early on Saturday, came as a Mai Mai militia group, which says it is fighting alongside the Congolese army, tried to wrest a key supply route from rebels loyal to renegade Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.
Nkunda’s forces then apparently attacked both the Mai Mai fighters and the Congolese army in retaliation.
Colonel Delphin Kahimbi, the army’s operations commander in North Kivu, said the Mai Mai fighters led by former senior army officer Kasereka Kabamba were hindering the government’s campaign against Nkunda and ordered them to disarm.
”I have already given Kasereka 48 hours to lay down his weapons and turn over the men under his command to reintegration centres,” he told Reuters.
”If he fails to do so, I will have to disarm them myself.”
The DRC’s army has been battling Nkunda since August, when his men abandoned a January peace deal and pulled out of government brigades. Nkunda led around 4 :000 soldiers into the bush in 2004, saying he would protect the DRC’s Tutsi minority.
He accuses the government of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan rebel group including ex-Hutu militia and Rwandan soldiers responsible for that country’s 1994 genocide. The DRC denies this.
The Mai Mai fighters under Kabamba have carried out operations with the FDLR against Nkunda.
The latest exodus from Rugari was triggered after Nkunda’s fighters ambushed a Congolese army truck late on Saturday.
The bullet-ridden vehicle lay off the side of the road in a village empty of residents on Sunday. Looters passed what valuables had been left behind through the windows of wooden homes among the banana plants and coffee plantations.
On the main road south, near the small town of Kibumba, a procession of thousands of Rugari residents were making their way towards Goma to escape the fighting.
Families of men, women and children carried mattresses, jerry cans, metal washbasins and bundles of possessions in bright cloth on their heads. Some led goats and cattle.
”We’re all Hutus. When there are problems like this, the Tutsis don’t move with us. They go on their own,” said Rugari resident Samuel Subomana (20).
”I don’t know where I’m going. I have no fixed destination.”
The United Nations mission in Congo (Monuc) has set up a temporary base to deal with the displaced in Kibumba, a settlement that has grown around a checkpoint on the road where hawkers sell their wares to truck drivers.
UN peacekeepers have deployed along the road in support of the Congolese army, an effort to prevent Nkunda’s fighters from trying to reach Goma. UN attack helicopters flew over the flashpoints on Saturday in a show of strength.
”We will not let anything happen in Goma or Sake. They won’t even try to move on Goma,” said Major PK Tiwari, Monuc military spokesperson in North Kivu. – Reuters