/ 23 May 2013

UN chief visits DRC after deadly fighting

Democratic Republic of Congo Prime Minister Matata Ponyo
Democratic Republic of Congo Prime Minister Matata Ponyo

Ban arrived in the Goma on Thursday after three days of fighting between rebels and government forces that ended months of calm in the volatile east of the country.

Ban's brief visit to the mineral-rich troublespot comes a day after he and the World Bank chief made a fresh push for peace and development in the region.

The latest bout of fighting near Goma, which was briefly seized by the M23 rebel group in an armed uprising last year despite the presence of a large UN peacekeeping force, has sent thousands of people fleeing.

But the Congolese army and rebel forces said the situation on the ground on Thursday was calm.

Both Kinshasa and the M23 have accused each other of launching hostilities and trying to scupper peace efforts in the restive east.

The rebels said on Wednesday they were ready for "an immediate cessation of hostilities" to enable Ban's visit to go ahead.

The government said on Tuesday that 19 people had been killed in the fresh surge of fighting, while the UN peacekeeping mission Monusco reported that a rocket launched from a rebel position on Wednesday had killed one person.

$1-billion in aid
The unrest was unleashed barely a week after the first troops from a new UN "offensive" brigade arrived in the east, an area rich in minerals including gold and coltan, which is used in cellphones and other electronic equipment.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, who is accompanying Ban on his regional tour, on Wednesday pledged $1-billion in aid as part of a UN-brokered accord aimed at bringing peace and stability to the region.

"We believe it offers the best hope for peace in a generation," Ban said of the agreement signed by 11 regional countries in February after the M23 uprising.

"But that agreement must translate into concrete actions. A peace deal must deliver a peace dividend for people," he said after meeting President Joseph Kabila at the start of the three-day tour that will also take him to Uganda and Rwanda.

Ban is due to meet local officials and visit a hospital which mainly treats victims of sexual abuse and where a small group of protesters gathered on Thursday voicing opposition to stall peace talks in the Ugandan capital Kampala.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, the DRC – which covers an area roughly the size of western Europe – is ranked by the UN as the world's least developed and has been devastated by some of Africa's deadliest wars.

Fresh fully fledged war
Its rich resources – often the cause of conflict – include gold and coltan, which is used in cellphones and other electronic equipment.

The M23 rebellion in the east last year, which led to the brief capture of Goma in November, threatened to drag the region into a fresh fully fledged war amid claims by the United Nations and Kinshasa that Rwanda and Uganda are backing the M23.

Regional and international diplomatic pressure forced peace talks on the warring parties but fresh fighting broke out on Monday.

While the government said 15 rebels and four army troops died in the clashes, the M23 said the figures were inflated.

The UN's refugee agency said the fighting, which erupted less than 14 kilometres from Goma had led around 30 000 displaced civilians to flee temporary shelters.

Ban said during a visit to Mozambique earlier this week that the deployment of a rapid UN intervention force made up of about 3 000 African troops, should be accelerated in view of the fresh unrest. The force was approved by the UN Security Council in March as its first ever "offensive" peacekeeping brigade.

The M23 – a largely ethnic Tutsi group of former army defectors – has vowed to retaliate if attacked by UN troops but said it does not intend to retake Goma, the capital of North Kivu province which lies on Lake Kivu.

The United Nations has accused the M23 of a string of rights abuses including arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, degrading treatment and rape of civilians. – AFP