/ 29 October 2008

Fresh fighting erupts in eastern DRC

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

A new bout of heavy fighting erupted between government and rebel forces on Wednesday in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where tens of thousands have fled their homes.

As United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for an end to the clashes, a government commander said his troops were being repeatedly shelled by fighters loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda, close to the regional capital, Goma.

An Agence France-Presse correspondent also reported that UN forces had deployed two combat helicopters against Nkunda’s troops.

The rebels were ”backed by Rwandan tanks which are pounding our positions from border hill positions”, said a Congolese government commander on condition of anonymity.

Shelling and rocket fire were heard about 10km south of the town of Kibumba, where government forces are blocking access to roads.

According to the army commander, one of the helicopters had ”inadvertently grazed one of our positions”, although he gave no further details.

The fighting was centred in an area about 30km from Goma, where thousands of civilians have been forced to flee amid the advance by Tutsi rebels.

The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that about 30 000 displaced people had started to arrive at Kibati, a camp 10km north of Goma.

The government in Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of actively supporting Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a charge which Kigali has denied.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame held talks on Wednesday at his offices in Kigali with a Congolese government delegation sent by his counterpart in Kinshasa, Joseph Kabila.

State media in Rwanda said aides to Kabila had proposed a summit between the two leaders about the flare-up in the Goma region but no date had been set.

Speaking on a visit to the Philippines, Ban urged an immediate end to the violence.

”First and foremost, the fighting must be stopped,” Ban told reporters.

”And I am deeply concerned about the civilian casualties as well as increasing number of internally displaced persons.”

Ban said he had dispatched two of his senior aides to talk to all parties to the conflict ”to reconcile”.

”Unfortunately, the situation in Goma is worrisome. There were some attacks even against the United Nations mission by civilian people,” he said.

Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping, briefed the UN’s Security Council on Tuesday night about the deteriorating situation in the Goma region.

Le Roy told reporters his request for additional forces for the UN mission in DRC (Monuc) had ”been heard clearly by all member states” and Kabila had also requested the dispatch of a ”multinational force” to beef up Monuc.

But the 15-member Council merely issued a non-binding statement in which members expressed ”great concern at the resurgence of violence in eastern DRC and strongly condemned the offensive operations”.

The Nord-Kivu province has been the site of fighting between government and rebel forces since late August, after the breakdown of the ceasefire signed in January.

Nkunda has accused the Congolese army of conniving with Rwandan Hutu rebels, who were involved in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and are now based in eastern DRC.

Like many Congolese Tutsis, Nkunda began his military career in the ranks of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which brought an end in July 1994 to the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu regime in Kigali.

The UN mission has been criticised for allegedly failing to prevent the advance of rebels led by Nkunda.

Although the 17 000 Monuc force is the biggest in UN history, less than 6 000 troops have been deployed against Nkunda’s irregular forces. — Sapa-AFP