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UN attacks rebels to protect civilians in Congo

UN attacks rebels to protect civilians in Congo

In a chaotic day of fighting and fear, U.N. peacekeepers used helicopter gunships against rebels in eastern Congo on Monday, trying to halt a rebel advance as government troops hastily retreated and civilians attacked U.N. headquarters demanding protection.
U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said the peacekeepers in the gunships fired at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Goma.
Rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma in defiance of calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a U.N.-brokered cease-fire signed in January.
It was the second time this year peacekeepers had fired on Nkunda's rebels. In December, U.N. officials also used helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the vast Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told The Associated Press that rebel fighters were within seven miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles from downtown Goma, told the AP they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.
In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back from the battlefront north of Goma _ fleeing in tanks, jeeps, trucks and on foot. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of displaced people poured onto the main road.
Tens of thousands of civilians also abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By nightfall, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.
The civilians and soldiers were surging south from a major army base seized by the rebels on Sunday.
As the crowds reached the city, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance of Goma, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.
Earlier Monday, crowds of protesters attacked four U.N. compounds in Goma with rocks, venting outrage that the U.N. peacekeeping mission _ the biggest in the world with 17,000 troops _ has been unable to protect them from the rebels.
Residents opposed to rebels, including Hutus and those who lived in refugee camps after fleeing earlier conflicts, feel particularly threatened.
The crowds shattered windows and damaged cars at the main U.N. office, van den Wildenberg said. One witness, Emmanuel Kihombo, said a peacekeeper fired directly into the crowd at one compound and shot a man in the stomach.
It was not immediately possible to confirm the report.
Kihombo, who is unemployed, said the protesters also hurled stones at about 20 Tutsi students, but they all managed to run away.
It was an indication of dangerously building anti-Tutsi sentiment fueled by the success of Nkunda's rebels, who say they are fighting to protect minority Tutsis from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping to perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered in that genocide.
Congo's government has accused the Tutsi-led government that won power in Rwanda after the genocide of sending troops to support Nkunda _ a charge Rwanda denies and the U.N. says is unfounded.
The U.N. spokeswoman also said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force, Gen. Vincente Diaz de Villegas of Spain, had resigned.
U.N. officials said Nkunda's fighters on Sunday blatantly launched several rockets at two U.N. armored cars that injured several U.N. soldiers, but a spokesman for Nkunda denied responsibility for the attack.
Van den Wildenberg, the U.N. spokeswoman, said there was no doubt the attack came from Nkunda's rebels. She said the peacekeepers were trying to reach thousands of people still trapped behind the front line around Rumangabo, the strategic army camp north of Goma.
Nkunda's rebels overran the camp early Sunday even as government soldiers pounded the area with heavy artillery.
The rebels also have seized the headquarters of Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the world's 700 mountain gorillas, which are considered critically endangered. Park director Emmanuel de Merode said Sunday's seizure of the headquarters was "unprecedented, even in all the years of conflict."
The ragtag Congolese army, cobbled together from defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars from 1997-2003, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralized and poorly paid.
Nkunda is believed to command about 5,500 highly trained and disciplined fighters.
Congo has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war that have kept people from profiting from its vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources.
Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006. But the new government has struggled to assert its control of the sprawling country, which is the size of Western Europe, particularly in the east.
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Associated Press photographer Karel Prinsloo contributed to this report from Kibumba, Congo.


Updated : 2021-05-07 01:15 GMT+08:00