Congolese Rebels Control Eastern City Of Goma

Tens of thousands of people have fled days of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as a rebel militia took control of the key regional capital. U.N. peacekeepers apparently stood aside as the rebels entered the city, which is at the heart of the mineral rich east of the country. It has often been the focus of rebel attacks but this marks the first time in a decade the Congolese government has lost control of the city.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Tens of thousands of people have fled days of fighting in Democratic Republic of Congo, as a rebel militia took control of a key regional capital, Goma. UN peacekeepers apparently stood by as the rebels entered the city, which is at the heart of the mineral rich east of the country. It has often been the focus of rebel attacks, but this marks the first time in a decade the Congolese government has lost control of the city. To learn more, we reached NPR's John Burnett, who is on the outskirts of Goma at the Rwanda-Congo border.

John, this rebel group, M-23, apparently just walked into Goma yesterday. Are they really in control of the place?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi, Linda. Yeah, from everything I can hear - I'm just about to cross the border. I'm here in Gisenyi, Rwanda. And I understand that it's quiet in Goma, that the M-23 rebels are in control of the international airport. They're in control of the immigration office here at the border. A lot of shops are closed in town, because people are still leery of what happens next.

But, yeah, the Congolese troops tucked and ran. And they reportedly, as they were leaving, gave guns to young men in the village - in the city to fight the advancing rebels. But that didn't really work. So the city capitulated. And now M-23 has their prize.

WERTHEIMER: Could you sort out the cast of characters for us, John? You have the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rebel group called M-23, but also Rwanda and Uganda on the borders may be players.

BURNETT: Yeah, it's a complex cast of characters. M-23, the rebel group, are mostly ethnic Tutsi. They defected from the Congolese army back in April. And since then they've been taking over an area about the size of Delaware in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They've been accused of human rights violations by various groups.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has a very weak control here in the east. So this is vulnerable territory. It's notoriously full of violent militias that come here and there.

And then Rwanda is a major player, the country I'm in right now. Rwanda is allegedly supporting the M-23 rebels, both logistically, with soldiers and with ammunition. Rwanda denies this, but both the Human Rights Watch and U.N. group of experts says that they're really the power behind the rebels. And finally, Uganda is also being accused of helping the M-23 rebels.

WERTHEIMER: What about U.N. forces that were supposed to be in Congo, a thousand or so of them in Goma?

BURNETT: You know, there apparently have been some protests. People can't believe that the U.N. just stood by and watched these rebel columns walk into town. There was a spokesperson for the U.N. peacekeepers said there are 1,500 of their soldiers - many from south Asia - in Goma. And they held their fire, because they didn't want to risk civilian lives.

But already we've heard from the French foreign minister who said it's absurd that the U.N. troops just rolled over and let the rebels come in. and he's going to ask the United Nations to strengthen their peacekeeping mandate here in the eastern DRC.

WERTHEIMER: John, do you have any sense of what happens next?

BURNETT: No one is quite sure what the M-23 wants. On the one hand, they said they want negotiations with the government of the DRC in Kinshasa. And, you know, they defected because there was a variety of complaints they had about being in the national army. So do they want to be reinstituted into the army? Do they want a semiautonomous Tutsi region here in the east? We're not sure. But whatever they want, occupying Goma is a huge bargaining chip to play.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's John Burnett, reporting from the border between Rwanda and Congo. This is NPR News.

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