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Congo rebels advance to outskirts of Goma

posted 19 Nov 2012, 04:37 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 19 Nov 2012, 04:38 ]

Rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo reach the outskirts of the eastern city of Gomapushing back government troops and United Nations peacekeepers. The rebels who were said to be within two kilometres of Goma say they do not plan to take the city.

GOMADEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO (NOVEMBER 19, 2012) (REUTERS) -  Rebels in Congo, who U.N. experts say are backed by neighbouring Rwanda, reached the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma on Sunday (November 18) after pushing back government troops, despite U.N. peacekeepers returning fire from helicopter gunships.

But a commander of the rebels, known as M23, on Monday (November 19) said they did not plan to take the city.

The rebels are led by mutinying soldiers who rose up eight months ago, accusing theDemocratic Republic of Congo's government of failing to respect a 2009 peace agreement to integrate insurgents from a previous rebellion into the army.

In four days of battles, the rebels have advanced closer than at any time in their eight-month uprising to Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu.

Rebels have repeatedly said they do not plan to capture the city, which sits at the Rwandan border on the north shore of Lake Kivu in the foothills of mist-covered volcanoes. Goma is a provincial capital and headquarters of U.N. peacekeepers.

Colonel Innocent Kayina, a commander with M23 rebels, said his fighters had advanced to within two kilometres of Goma but added that they would hold their position around five kilometres outside the city and that fighting had stopped for the day.

"Our main objective was jut to arrive here and show the main aim of our cause, we have no intentions of going into Goma but if the FARDC (Congolese army) attack us we will enter the city," said Kayina

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday condemned the rebel offensive and urged M23 to "immediately cease its attacks and any further military advances toward the city of Goma."

His appeal echoed a similar call made by the U.N. Security Council after an emergency meeting on Congo on Saturday (November 17).

Goma is home to up to a million people, including hundreds of thousands displaced by conflict. Tensions in Goma remained high with the threat that the city will fall into M23's hands while some residents tried to evacuate their families from Goma.

"We really do not know how or why our military failed to repel the enemy troops from getting this close, we are really worried about what is going to happen to us," said Bahati John, a local resident

The United Nations has about 6,700 peacekeeping forces in North Kivu, with some 1,400 troops in Goma and the surrounding area. Local residents however said trucks full of Congolese soldiers were seen leaving the city, a claim refuted by Congolese armyCommander, Colonel Innocent Gahizi.

"We are going to get our troops to the frontline soon, we are in control of the situation and there is no problem," said Gahizi

U.N. sanctions monitoring experts have accused Rwanda and Uganda of supporting the M23 rebels in eastern Congo. Last week the U.N. experts recommended that theSecurity Council sanction a number of Rwandan officials. Congo's government has also urged the council to sanction Rwandans accused of backing M23.

While Rwanda's army has repeatedly sent soldiers into Congo during nearly two decades of conflict in Africa's Great Lakes region, the Rwandan government has strongly denied supporting the M23 in the latest rebellion. Uganda has issued similar denials.

The U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters on Saturday the M23 rebels have received sophisticated equipment, including night vision capacity and 120 mm mortars.

More than three-quarters of a million people have fled their homes since the latest fighting in eastern Congo erupted in April when a group of soldiers mutinied to form the M23 group.

The rebels accused Kinshasa of failing to respect a 2009 peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in North Kivu and integrated insurgents into the national army.

European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton called on the rebels to halt their offensive on Goma.

More than 5 million people are estimated to have died from violence, hunger and disease in wars in Congo since 1998, which would make it the deadliest conflict since World War Two.