Rebels, army clash in eastern DRC

Explosions and machine-gun fire echoed through the hills of east Democratic Republic of Congo on Friday, as government troops battled rebels for a third day amid a worsening humanitarian crisis that has displaced nearly 200 000 people in the past few months, a United Nations military spokesperson said.

Clashes between the army and insurgents loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda erupted early on Friday around Rugari, about 35km north of the regional capital, Goma, said Major Viveck Goyal, a spokesperson for the 18 000-strong peacekeeping force.

”The initial information we have is that the Nkunda elements are being pushed away from Rugari,” Goyal said.

Neither the army nor rebels could be reached for comment.

The DRC’s government has struggled with little success to establish authority over the lawless eastern regions of the country, particularly the volatile province of North Kivu, where the army and at least three other factions control their own patches of territory, openly manning roadblocks on dirt tracks that wind through hundreds of steep green hills.

Nkunda defected from the army several years ago and formed his own militia soon after the DRC’s war ended in 2002, claiming he needed to protect his minority Tutsi ethnic group from Rwandan rebels who have occupied forests in east DRC since fleeing Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which their leaders helped organise. More than 500 000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the mass Rwandan slaughter 13 years ago.

Nkunda and his fighters rejoined the army earlier this year, but broke away again months later. The latest round of clashes between Nkunda’s men and government loyalists erupted in August and have continued sporadically despite attempts to broker a truce between the two sides.

Skirmishes in Rugari on Thursday forced hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians to flee down a main road from Goma. Army units on Wednesday, meanwhile, repelled another attack by Nkunda fighters on a military base in Rutshuru, 30km north of Rugari.

That attack forced thousands of people in Rutshuru to flee, ”many for a second or third time”, the UN World Food Programme said in a statement.

Though most Rutshuru residents have returned, ”the constant forced movement is wearing down the survival strategies of a population that is already extremely vulnerable”, WFP said.

Last week, tens of thousands of people fled two camps on the rocky volcanic plains of Mugunga, just east of Goma, after Nkunda fighters attacked an artillery-equipped army position on a hilltop overlooking it. Most residents returned, but found the temporary huts looted.

The fighting has battered impoverished North Kivu, forcing more than 176 000 people to flee in the last several months, according to UN figures. The region has been insecure for years, however, and the latest violence has pushed the total number of displaced in the province to around 800 000.

On a visit to Goma on Wednesday, UN force commander General Babacar Gaye said UN forces would help government forces disarm militias in the east, including Rwandan rebels, traditional Mai Mai militiamen and Nkunda’s rebels — most of whom have failed to lay down their arms and rejoin the army.

About 4 000 UN troops are deployed in North Kivu with a mandate to protect civilians. Militarily, they have helped defend key population centres, including Goma and more recently the town of Sake, where peacekeepers deployed to enforce a truce between Nkunda fighters and the army.

The UN force in the DRC is the largest the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Though violence has persisted in eastern part of the country, the

force has helped maintain security in the vast mineral-rich country since the end of a 1998 to 2002 war that drew in the armies of more than half a dozen African nations. – Sapa-AP

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Todd Pitman
Todd Pitman works from [email protected] Regional Public Information Officer, UN Human Rights (OHCHR), based in Bangkok. Ex-AP foreign correspondent in Africa and Asia-Pacific. Todd Pitman has over 2342 followers on Twitter.

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