Congo rebels push toward key city

Civilians displaced by fighting pelted the UN compound in Goma with rocks on Monday. They blame UN peacekeepers for failing to protect them from rebels.

Displaced: Refugees who fled clashes between government troops and Tutsi rebels watch UN peacekeepers patrol a road in Kibati, Congo.

– Congolese rebels continued their march toward the regional capital of Goma on Tuesday, driving panicky Army soldiers and tens of thousands of displaced civilians out onto the muddy roads ahead of them.

The battles in North Kivu Province were the latest sign of the disarray of the government of President Joseph Kabila, which had signed a peace agreement with dozens of rebel groups in the mineral-rich eastern provinces of the country that borders Rwanda and Uganda. But with that peace deal in tatters, Mr. Kabila this week has shaken up his cabinet and brought in a new set of hard-liners promising to deal firmly with the rebels.

In the cycle of war and dialogue that has beset the Congo for the past decade, killing nearly 4 million, it appears the country is tipping toward another round of war.

"The parties, both sides are much more belligerent, much more bellicose, and narrowing the space for dialogue in the future," says Anneke van Woudenberg, senior Congo researcher for Human Rights Watch, who recently visited Goma. "The process which led to the cease-fire in January was supposed to lead to ongoing talks on grievances between [the rebels] and the government. But the talks never took place. The lack of political dialogue is what led to this situation."

Mineral riches fuel war

At the root of the conflict is the paradoxical weakness and poverty of a country that, on paper, should be one of Africa's richest. With vast mineral deposits of gold, diamonds, uranium, copper, cobalt, and tin, Congo has what the booming emerging economies of China and India want, and what the now crumbling markets of Europe and North America still need. Unable to pay its soldiers and government officials on a regular basis, unable to control the outflow of the mineral wealth, Congo is a giant piggy bank waiting to be smashed.

In Congo's last major war, starting in 1996 with the fall of dictator Mobutu sese Seko and ending with the promise of democratic elections in 2006, so many of Congo's neighbors joined in the fight – and the looting – that pundits called it "Africa's first world war."

Now, despite a carefully negotiated cease-fire, and the presence of the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping force, Congo seems incapable of stopping another outbreak of war, with rebel commanders threatening to march toward the capital of Kinshasa, and 2 million Congolese displaced from their homes.

On Monday, the UN deployed attack helicopters against rebel troops marching on the town of Kibumba, which hosts thousands of displaced people, many of them Rwandan refugees.

UN under attack

At the same time, the UN compound in Goma came under attack from angry displaced civilians pelting the offices with stones. They blame UN peacekeepers for failing to protect them from the rebels. On Monday, the top military force commander for the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) resigned after less than a month on the job, a troubling breakdown in the UN command.

On Tuesday, the rebels, led by an ethnic Tutsi general, Laurent Nkunda, held back from further clashes, as UN and Congolese Army troops withdrew from Kibumba. But UN troops re–inforced their positions on the western approaches to the city.

Mr. Nkunda says he is trying to protect his ethnic Tutsi brethren from massacre by Rwandan rebel groups. Of top concern are the FDLR, a Hutu-led group blamed for the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda, who now take refuge in the forests of North and South Kivu. Government officials insist that they will deal with the FDLR once all Congolese rebel groups have been disarmed and integrated into the Congolese Army.

Yet while the commanders of other rebel groups quickly laid down their arms and received top positions in the Congolese Army, General Nkunda was turned down for his desired post as head of recruitment and training. In August, just months after the arrest of a top Congolese opposition leader, Jean-Pierre Bemba, on war-crimes charges, Nkunda launched attacks on the government once again.

The fact that Nkunda's relatively small army of 4,000 well-trained soldiers is able to push back the larger but poorly trained and largely unpaid Congolese Army is a sign that the government's preferred strategy of dealing with Nkunda with force rather than dialogue is a losing strategy, says Gregory Mthembu-Salter, a senior Congo researcher for the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"In the previous situation, Kabila sent in 20,000 men, and he got beat by 4,000. [Congo's troops] can't fight."

Jacques Kahorha contributed to this report from Goma and Kibumba.

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