Congo rebels take eastern towns as conflict escalates

Tens of thousands of civilians flee, as Congolese rebels take a number of towns. For now, neither the government nor renegade troops are backing down.

By , Correspondent

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    Colonel Makenga (c.) commander of the M23 rebel movement, stands on a hill overlooking the border town of Bunagana, Congo, Sunday, July 8. Rebels have seized several towns in volatile eastern Congo.
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Standing in what was once a primary schoolroom, rebel officer Vianney Kazarama points at the dozens of untouched crates of mortar bombs that the government troops left behind when they fled.

“And they call themselves an army,” Mr. Kazarama, who acts as the rebel spokesman, says. “They're not an army, they're simply our logistics wing, there to supply us with what we need.”

Congolese government soldiers themselves until a mutiny several months ago, in the past few days Mr. Kazarama and his rebel comrades have captured a series of key towns in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, putting the national army to flight and displacing thousands of civilians.

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The group – called M23 – say they are fighting to get the government to respect the terms of a peace treaty that it signed three years ago to try to end an earlier rebellion – when many of the same rebel troops seized the same towns and forced the same communities to flee.

But United Nations experts say that they have received support and recruits from Rwanda, a tiny country that has backed a series of proxy militias inside its giant dysfunctional neighbor. Both Rwanda and the rebels vociferously deny these accusations.

Congo's size, administrative weakness, and inability to control its own territory have affected the central African and Great Lakes regions for decades. Since the late 1990s, Congo's neighbors have sent in troops or backed militias to prop up one government and pull down another, often siphoning off Congo's rich natural resources, including diamonds, coltan, and gold on their retreat. While Congo's current president, Joseph Kabila, says he has attempted to bring peace to his restive eastern Congo regions by integrating disaffected commanders and ethnic groups into the national army, his government has been unable to build a lasting peace, and a sense that Congo is in charge of its own destiny. 

Rebel commander meets the press

Surrounded by bodyguards armed with RPGs, Kalashnikovs, and an iPhone, rebel leader Sultani Makenga sits on a fold-out camping chair near the top of a hill that was a base for government troops until a few days ago.

Appearing self-satisfied – if slightly bashful despite the large pistol on his hip – Mr. Makenga was alternately defensive and belligerent as he addressed journalists for the first time on Sunday.

“We’re not here to take towns, we’re here to voice our problems,” Makenga says, several hours after his troops stormed the center of the strategic town of Rutshuru. “Maybe one day the government will listen to us and resolve the problems.”

Makenga says the latest rebel offensive, which saw them sweep into several towns close to the Ugandan border, was only a reaction to a government attack on rebel positions in the surrounding hills, and by Monday his troops appeared to have moved out of some of the towns they captured.

But many doubt that Makenga is even the real leader of the rebel group.

The UN says that Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, a warlord who is known as “The Terminator” and wanted by the International Criminal Court, is really heading the rebellion.

Meanwhile others say that Laurent Nkunda, the charismatic leader of the earlier rebellion and Makenga's former boss, might be pulling the strings – even though he has not been heard from since he was arrested by Rwanda in early 2009.

Makenga insists he is in charge, but whoever the real leader is, having proved they can defeat the government forces, the rebels are feeling confident – and claim they could march on Goma, the regional capital of Congo's North Kivu state.

“The government of Congo will determine my move,” Makenga says. “If the government wants the problem to be solved by war, I am ready to fight. If they want peace talks, we will do that.”

For now, though, talks seem unlikely.

Arrest warrants

On Friday, the Congolese government issued arrest warrants for Makenga, Gen. Ntaganda, and Kazarama, calling for troops on the ground “to urgently relaunch an operation to arrest them.”

How the government in far-off Kinshasa can actually go about that, on the other hand, is unclear.

Lounging on the grass at a Ugandan army base several miles from the border, soldiers from the elite commando unit of the Congolese army doze and wait.

Sent to the region specially to fight the rebels, the troops from the Belgian-trained unit were among over 600 soldiers who fled a rebel assault on the border town of Bunagana – leaving a trail of discarded helmets, boots, and battered pride behind them.

“As part of our military strategy we found it necessary to withdraw,” company commander Petit Petit Tamata says. Two soldiers from his unit were killed and four injured, he says.

For now though, with neither side apparently ready to give way, as ever it is the local population that is bearing the brunt of the spiral of fighting and uncertainty.

Refugees again

And for many of those being displaced this is not the first time that they have been forced to flee. Since fighting flared earlier this year Uganda has registered 30,000 refugees from Congo.

Prince Fidel may only be aged 18 but he has already been a refugee, a returnee, and now is once again a refugee.

One of over 16,000 Congolese in Nyakabande refugee transit camp on the Ugandan side of the border, he says that he and his family already spent two years as refugees in Uganda after they fled the fighting in 2008.

Told that peace had returned to eastern Congo they headed back home but after little more than a year have been forced to flee again.

“My schooling has been so disrupted – Congo to Uganda to Congo to Uganda,” Mr. Fidel says. “When will it just be normal?” 

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