Congo's conflict could cross borders

UN forces hold off a rebel advance in the wake of a failed offensive by government forces.

Holiday celebrations are the last thing on anyone's mind here in Congo's war-torn east.

Thousands of weary people wander the muddy roads, pondering where to flee to next. Government troops mooch from the displaced, clutching translucent green plastic bags of provisions while their guns swing lazily from their shoulders.

The troops' presence was supposed to be a major and sustained offensive, designed to rid Congo of a rebel warlord and impose the rule of a government elected last year in the country's first free and fair vote in decades. With the help of an 18,000-strong United Nations force, thousands of government troops and tons of munitions were bused and airlifted into place here in North Kivu Province.

Yet, only a few days into the offensive, the rebels last week counterattacked, sending the army into a disorderly retreat and displacing fresh waves of people across this province. "People here have been thrown into one of the most terrible tragedies," says UN spokesperson Kemal Saiki. Even before the last couple of weeks, he says, there were 800,000 people in this part of the country "who have been thrown onto the roads."

More than 55,000 people were displaced this month alone, according to UN officials.

The situation is worst in a territory called Masisi, behind the rebel lines, where food stockpiles could run out.

"It is very difficult for humanitarians to get through the frontline," says Patrick Lavand'homme, at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

"The World Food Programme got up to Masisi less than a month ago," before the start of the aborted government offensive, adds Mr. Lavand'homme. "But we need to get access back in the next two weeks, because food is the commodity that you need to renew every month."

But that won't be easy. Even in the best of times, the narrow roads can be treacherous, as they wind along mountain passes, and seasonal rains have turned dust tracks into slippery marshes. As a result, the last food delivery was 200 tons, rather than a planned 300 tons.

Retreat of government troops

Visiting the front lines, it is clear that only the UN blue helmets now stand in the way of a much bigger advance by the rebels.

The UN says that it is still confident in the elected authorities and the Army, despite the mass exodus of thousands of government troops when the rebels attacked. "There was a temporary reverse," says Brig. Gen. Indrajeet Narayan, back at the UN's Brigade Headquarters in Goma, the provincial capital. "[The government] troops retreated. These things happen in war, in war-like conditions; you have victories, you have reverses."

Others are less confident about the government army. "Brigades are poorly trained both as far as logistics are concerned and in so far as there is a lack of unity in the lines of command," says Henri Boshoff, a Congo expert at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

In the battle-scarred town of Sake, many are frustrated that UN forces have not done more to fight the rebels. "They are just a few hundred meters away [from the rebels]. Why aren't they going forward and fighting them?" asks Archimede Bahati.

But the UN's mandate only allows it to provide support for the government's own efforts: it cannot take the lead role, spokespeople say. Fully aware of this reality, the leader of the 4,000-6,000 rebels, Laurent Nkunda, is insisting on a host of demands, including enhanced government representation for Tutsis.

Could fighting spark a new regional war?

Much of eastern Congo's insecurity dates back to 1994 when tens of thousands of Hutus who slaughtered Rwandan Tutsis en masse fled into neighboring Congo.

Many of those Hutus stayed in Congo, forming militias that no force has been able to eradicate. The continued presence of around 6,000-10,000 of these extremists is one of the reasons for Mr. Nkunda's military aggression. It's also of concern to Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated government.

With Congo's government preoccupied by Nkunda, there are signs that the Hutu extremists are exploiting fresh breathing space. On a plain close to Rwanda, the mobilization of Congolese army units for the offensive against Nkunda has allowed the Hutu militia to move in and occupy the area, according to Lavand'homme.

There are concerns of "a possible unleashing of a new regional war," says Boshoff. "The Rwandan Army, whose troops are concentrated on the frontier, would be ready to intervene if there were massacres of Tutsis or a direct attack ... on Rwandan territory."

But "international pressure" means that this would be a last resort, he adds. Still, Rwanda intervened multiple times during the 1998-2002 civil war that sucked in other neighboring countries, resulting in massive plundering and the deaths of more than 3 million people.

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