Furious mobs stoned U.N. peacekeepers' compounds Monday and thousands of desperate people fled advancing rebel troops as chaos returned to eastern Congo, fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars.
U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said later in the day U.N. peacekeepers in helicopters fired at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of the provincial capital of Goma.
In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back from the battlefront north of Goma _ fleeing any way possible, including using tanks, jeeps and commandeered cars. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of displaced people on the main road.
Crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds in Goma, venting outrage at what they claimed was a failure to protect them from rebels.
The U.N. said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned Monday after just a month. And Congo's president appointed a new Cabinet including a new defense minister and charged it with being "a combat government to re-establish peace."
Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease fire brokered by the U.N. in January. Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told The Associated Press Monday that rebel fighters were within seven miles (11 kilometers) of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles (five kilometers) from downtown Goma, told the AP they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.
Tens of thousands of civilians 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 Goma, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.
The peacekeeper assault Monday was the second in a year against Nkunda's rebels. In December, U.N. officials also used attack 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.
People in eastern Congo are furious that the U.N. peacekeeping mission _ the biggest in the world with 17,000 troops _ has been unable to protect them from the rebels. The United Nations said Friday that more than 200,000 people have fled their homes in eastern Congo in just the past two months, with 15,000 on Sunday. Tens of thousands fled Monday.
Thousands of terrified and angry residents, including some from refugee camps, attacked all four U.N. compounds in Goma on Monday, lobbing rocks and stones over the wall.
Van den Wildenberg said peacekeepers were forced to fire into the air outside a downtown U.N. compound. But a witness, Emmanuel Kihombo, said a U.N. soldier fired directly into the crowd and hit a man in the stomach.
Van den Wildenberg said an organization of civil societies complained that a government trooper and a soldier from the elite presidential guard were killed when the peacekeepers fired.
She said a student also reportedly died, but it was unclear whether the cause was stoning or a bullet.
Kihombo said the protesters also hurled stones at some 20 Tutsi students, but that they all managed to run away.
It was an indication of growing anti-Tutsi sentiment fueled by the success of Nkunda's rebels and long-simmering resentment over the wealth of Tutsis, many of them entrepreneurs.
Washington-based Refugees International condemned the international community late Monday, saying the peacekeepers "have been betrayed by all parties to the conflict, as well as the international community." It said the U.N. gave them "an exceptionally complex set of tasks to accomplish, but never came through with the resources or the political support to get the job done."
After meeting with U.N. officials, civil society leaders said they did not understand how U.N. soldiers sent to protect them could fire live bullets at people and kill three of them.
"Today, we told the governor to tell the president and the prime minister that if the army and the U.N. peacekeepers do not succeed in mastering the situation and stopping the rebel advance, the people will descend into the streets to demand the government resign," said Jason Luneno, who led the group.
He said the peacekeepers also should leave Congo if they could not stop the fighting and protect people.
U.N. officials said Nkunda's fighters on Sunday launched several rockets at two U.N. armored cars. A spokesman for Nkunda denied responsibility for the attack that injured several U.N. soldiers.
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 the seizure was "unprecedented, even in all the years of conflict."
The Congolese army, cobbled together of defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars from 1997-2003, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralized and poorly paid with lowest-ranking men getting little more than $20 a month.
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 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 in Kibumba, Congo, and AP writer Eddy Isango in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.