As Congo Rebels Advance, Civilians Target U.N.

Angry civilians attacked U.N. offices in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, accusing U.N. peacekeeping troops of failing to protect them. Rebels are making gains against government troops in the region. Michael Kavanagh, a reporter trapped in a U.N. base in Goma, says the U.N. troops are too few in number to protect the vast area of 8 million people.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now to the latest disturbing news from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the past decade, the war in that country has claimed as many as five million lives. And to the east of the Congo, several thousand rebels are fighting against and gaining ground from the country's undisciplined and underpaid army.

Tens of thousands of people in that region have fled their homes, and they're angry. Mobs of civilians today attacked United Nations offices, accusing the U.N. peacekeeping troops of failing to protect them. Reporter Michael Kavanagh was at the UN.. base in the city of Goma. He joins us now to talk about the situation. Michael, you're still at the U.N. base in Goma, I gather?

MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Yes. I've been here most of the day now. We're stuck inside. It's possible we're going to have to spend the night here. Just now, I'm hearing small arms fired. It's been going on for about an hour. It seems like the front line is moving closer and closer to Goma. Earlier today, the rebels are about 12 miles from here. You can see displaced people coming down the streets in waves, and all day long, there have been protesters outside throwing rocks and lighting tires on fire. And no one's really been able to leave throughout, I guess, my understanding is the entire city of Goma.

SIEGEL: Well, are the protesters correct in their accusation that U.N. peacekeepers are failing to protect them, and is the U.N. in any position to be able to protect them?

KAVANAGH: The answer to that question is both no and yes. On the one hand, the U.N. force here will tell you that they're doing everything they can to protect these civilians. On the other hand, you have a situation where there are only 5,500 U.N. peacekeepers here in North Kivu. North Kivu is the province where this conflict is going on. It's on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. And this area is too vast, it's too mountainous, it's jungle-like, and it's just too difficult to protect the nearly eight million people who live here.

SIEGEL: And the U.N. said today that they, in fact, dispatched helicopter gunships to go after the rebels.

KAVANAGH: Right, and they've actually gone out with helicopter gunships and with tanks, and they reinforced the barriers outside Goma. And they're taking the fight straight to the rebels.

SIEGEL: Well, I want you to try to explain to us now who's fighting whom exactly? Who are the rebels who are opposing the Congolese army in the east of the Congo. What did they want? And who does appear to be winning?

KAVANAGH: You have right now rebels who are called the CNDP. It's run by a dissident general, a Tutsi. His name is Laurent Nkunda. And he has three objectives right now. One is for political power, a dialog with the government. The other thing is the return of the refugees. There are about 14,000 Tutsis, Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda right now. He wants them home. And third thing is the removal of this group called the FDLR. The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu force, the leaders of which committed genocide in Rwanda.

They've been here since the genocide, since 1994. And they're, in many ways, one of the largest causes of this conflict. There was a peace agreement in January that encouraged the Congolese army and the U.N. to get rid of these forces, the FDLR, so that Nkunda would lay down his arms. This hasn't happened. He basically has, in the last few weeks, called the government illegitimate, and he has called for all out war, which has infuriated the U.N. and infuriated the international community in general. But frankly, his troops are so powerful that no one can subdue him right now, as we're seeing today.

SIEGEL: I gather all this has delayed your schedule of departure from Goma?

KAVANAGH: It might. It might. It's not clear that we're going to be able to leave here tonight. And I do have a plane to catch in Kigali, in Rwanda tomorrow morning, and if the security situation stays like this, I don't know if I'll be getting on that plane.

SIEGEL: Well, good luck and take care.

KAVANAGH: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's reporter Michael Kavanagh. He spoke with us from inside U.N. headquarters in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The headquarters were besieged by protesters today, Congolese claiming that the U.N. is not doing enough to protect them from rebels. Also today, the U.N. announced that the commander of its mission on the Democratic Republic of Congo is resigning, citing personal reasons.

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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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