Phil Moore | AFP
Published — Tuesday 20 November 2012
Last update 20 November 2012 6:41 pm
GOMA, DR Congo: Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday marched into the main city of Goma in the mineral-rich east of the country, as President Joseph Kabila urged people to resist the advance.
A column of rebel fighters entered the city from the main airport road, sweeping past government troops, and moved toward the center, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.
“DR Congo is today confronted with a difficult situation,” Kabila said on national television. “When a war is imposed, one has an obligation to resist. I ask that the entire population defend our sovereignty.”
The advance marks an escalation in the fighting, which erupted last week after a four-month lull and which has raised fears of a wider conflict engulfing the volatile region.
A UN official had earlier told AFP that the rebels had seized control of the airport, but another official later said that the situation there was not clear.
Loud explosions shook the area and there were reports of looting in Goma, the regional capital of 300,000 right on the border with Rwanda that is also sheltering tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the clashes.
The international community has raised alarm about the fighting, which erupted last Thursday with advances by the M23 rebels, former soldiers who mutinied in April.
The UN accuses neighboring Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, charges both countries deny.
Washington has warned the fighting was “an extremely dangerous and worrying situation” and the EU, Britain and France have also raised alarm.
The latest round of fighting erupted last week after the US and the UN slapped sanctions on the leader of the M23, Sultani Makenga.
Makenga is accused of atrocities including masterminding killings, rapes, abductions and recruiting child soldiers.
The rebels have said they plan to fight the DR Congo government “until it falls.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of Congolese students staged demonstrations in the northeastern town of Kisangi and in Kinshasa.
In Kisangi the students ransacked the offices of the country’s ruling party and shouted anti-Kabila slogans while in Kinshasa they put up banners reading “no to war.”
The UN has some 1,500 “quick reaction” peacekeepers in Goma, part of some 6,700 troops in North Kivu province, backing government forces against the rebels.
Aid agencies have evacuated staff from the city and the UN had planned to remove non-essential personnel on Tuesday.
On Monday Kinshasa rejected the rebels’ ultimatum for direct talks within 24 hours, calling it “irrational rantings.”
“We prefer to negotiate with Rwanda, the real aggressor,” government spokesman Lambert Mende told AFP.
Rwanda late Monday had accused government troops of deliberately bombing its territory.
The fighting is the most serious since July, when UN helicopters last went into action against the M23.
The M23 rebels are former soldiers who mutinied in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal that integrated them into the regular army.
The rebels are mainly Tutsis, the minority ethnic group of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the target of the 1994 genocide in that country that claimed at least 800,000 lives.
Many members of the Hutu militias who perpetrated the genocide fled across into DR Congo and used Hutu refugee camps as bases for incursions against Rwanda, further destabilizing the region.
The mineral-rich east has long been a powderkeg, the launchpad of rebellions dating back to 1996, with Rwanda and Uganda both playing active or behind-the-scenes roles in much of the warfare.
Two wars that shook the whole of DR Congo between 1996 and 1997 and then again from 1998 to 2002 both began in the Kivu region.
Since 1998 more than three million people are estimated to have died from combat, disease and hunger and 1.6 million have been left homeless.
The former Belgian colony, known as Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who was toppled in 1997, remains one of the world’s least developed countries despite a wealth of cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold.
In peaceful times, Goma is the starting point for tourists wishing to see endangered mountain gorillas in nearby Virunga National Park.