U.N. Forces Go On Attack Amid Turmoil In Congo

Peacekeepers attacked rebels in eastern Congo with helicopter gunships Monday while crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds, venting outrage at what they said was a failure to protect them from advancing rebel forces.

U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said the peacekeepers fired Monday at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Goma.

In December, U.N. officials also used helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.

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 January cease-fire.

Rebels Approach Goma

In an interview with The Associated Press, rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said Monday that fighters were within seven miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles from downtown Goma, told The Associated Press they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.

Tens of thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes. Women and children lay on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to spend the night. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.

Also Monday, the U.N. spokeswoman said that the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force had resigned.

Tens Of Thousands Flee

People in eastern Congo are angry that a 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force has been unable to protect them from a rebel attack just 25 miles north of the city. Tens of thousands of civilians have abandoned their homes.

Crowds of protesters shattered windows and damaged cars at the main U.N. office in Goma on Monday, van den Wildenberg said. One witness said he saw a peacekeeper fire into the crowd at one compound and injure a man, but it was not immediately possible to confirm the report.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Congolese soldiers pulled back Monday from the front in tanks, jeeps, trucks and on foot in what appeared to be a major retreat of government forces. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of refugees pouring onto the main road.

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."

Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, but the new government has struggled to assert its control in a country the size of western Europe, particularly in the east.

U.N. Reacts To Rebel Movements

On Sunday, rebels seized a major army camp in eastern Congo, marking the second time they have seized the base since Aug. 28, when Nkunda went on the offensive after accusing government troops of violating the January cease-fire. Aid workers at a U.N. security briefing said it appeared that most soldiers at the base — usually manned by about 1,500 — fled without putting up a fight.

Peacekeepers were trying to get to thousands of people still trapped behind the front line around Rumangabo, a strategic army camp 25 miles north of Goma.

Adding to the confusion, rebels are attacking in small groups on several fronts and retreating to banana plantations, passing civilians trying to get away, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

U.N. officials also said Nkunda's fighters on Sunday blatantly 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 ragtag Congolese army, cobbled together from defeated army troops and several rebel and militia groups after back-to-back wars, is disjointed, undisciplined, demoralized and poorly paid with the lowest-ranking earning little more than $20 a month.

Nkunda is believed to command about 5,500 highly trained and disciplined fighters who say their mission is to protect the region's tiny Tutsi minority from a Hutu militia that escaped from Rwanda into Congo after the 1994 genocide.

From Associated Press reports.

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