Melanie Gouby/AP
People flee as fighting erupts between the March 23 movement (M23) rebels and Congolese army near the airport at Goma, DR Congo, on Monday. Fighters from the M23 entered the city after clashes broke out with Congolese soldiers over the weekend.

Rebel fighters in the DR Congo enter Goma, threatening wider conflict

After days of pushing back UN peacekeepers to close in on the eastern city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a rebel group called M23 is threatening to destabilize the region.

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A rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo seized strategic parts of the eastern, mineral-rich city of Goma today, and is reportedly moving south toward  Bukavu, threatening to immerse one of Africa’s largest countries in a new conflict and destabilize the region.

Fighters from the March 23 movement (M23), a rebel group created just seven months ago, entered Goma after clashes broke out with Congolese soldiers over the weekend, reports the Associated Press.

Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital, which lies to the south.

Civilians ran down sidewalks and roads looking for cover and children shouted in alarm as gunfire crackled in the distance. A man clutched a thermos as he ran. A white tank with UN emblazoned on its side rolled down a Goma street, passing a Congolese army tank.

The U.N. peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who was frustrated over the lack of action by the peacekeeepers.

"MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions [at the airport]. We ask that the MONUSCO do more," he said.

According to Reuters, a senior UN source said Congolese troops evacuated Goma, and UN peacekeepers were unable to put up a defense.

"There is no Army left in the town, not a soul ... once they were in the town what could we do? It could have been very serious for the population," the Reuters source said, asking not to be named. Residents were ordered to evacuate, and refugee camps in the area were abandoned, Reuters reports.

"Despite the attack helicopters, despite the heavy weapons, the FARDC (Congo national Army) has let the town fall into our hands," Col. Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for M23, told Reuters by telephone.

The Goma airport is a lifeline for the many aid organizations based there, as well as businesses.  The Congolese Army has denied claims that M23 rebels have taken over the airport, which sits across the street from the UN headquarters, reports The Daily Telegraph. “[T]here are fears that if Goma falls, rebel footsoldiers will go on a rampage of looting and rape, particularly if the UN continues to appear ineffective.”

The M23 offensive began after rebels demanded direct talks with the Congolese government. According to The Wall Street Journal, Lambert Mende, Congo's information minister, ruled out direct talks with M23, saying the government "would rather speak to Rwanda, which is the real force behind the current offensive."

A UN panel of experts has accused both Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, though leaders from both countries deny the charges.  The AP reports that Rwanda is accused of equipping M23 rebels with “sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120 mm mortars.” And, according to the BBC, the M23 is made up of mostly ethnic Tutsis, which is the same group that dominates Rwanda’s government.

The New York Times reports this is the heaviest fighting seen in eastern Congo since 2008. That was when Goma was last threatened by rebels, reports the AP, “when fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, stopped just short of Goma, after intense international pressure.”

Their backs to the wall, the Congolese government agreed to enter into talks with the CNDP and a year later, on March 23, 2009, a peace deal was negotiated calling for the CNDP to put down their arms in return for being integrated into the national army.

The peace deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP members, defected from the army, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the deal. They charged that they were not properly paid and equipped and that the government has systematically discriminated against ethnic Tutsis, which make-up the majority of their ranks.

The rebels are led by a “renegade general” Bosco Ntaganda who is wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, reports the Journal. During the mass defections last April, The Christian Science Monitor’s guest blogger Jason K. Stearns wrote that Congolese generals feared Ntaganda and his troops would attack Goma “to make a point.”

At the same time, he has been able to stitch together a formidable, if shaky, alliance of [ex-army] commanders through co-option and intimidation over the past years, and he personally has a lot to lose.

Mr. Stearns, an expert on eastern Congo, echoed that sentiment in comments to the Times this week. “This is the big escalation we’ve been expecting for months." But, Stearns added, “for the M23, taking Goma is a gamble. It gives them huge leverage, but also brings greater infamy.

“It will be a serious blow to the region’s stability.”

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