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Last updated: November 20, 2012 4:47 pm
Congolese rebels have taken the pivotal city of Goma in a heavy blow to the country’s efforts to halt a rebellion that began in April and is widely believed to be backed by Rwanda.
M23 mutineers entered the city with their leader, Sultani Makengaon, on Tuesday after fighting erupted on its outskirts on Monday, displacing tens of thousands of people.
“We’ve taken the town, it’s under control,” said Colonel Vianney Kazarama, speaking for the rebels. “We’re very tired, we’re going to greet our friends now.” On Monday, he had denied the rebels would take the city.
Witnesses said some residents thronged the streets and cheered their entry as Congo’s president, Joseph Kabila, flew to Uganda for regional talks on the crisis.
“We are very worried for the people of Goma. They are suffering enormously from the arrogant attitude of Rwanda,” Congo’s government spokesman, Lambert Mende, told the FT, adding that Mr Kabila was prepared to pursue military, diplomatic and political means to save the region.
“We are looking for a solution,” he said.
A senior UN source told Reuters that international peacekeepers had given up defending the city after the Congolese troops evacuated.
“There is no army left in the town, not a soul . . . Once they were in the town what could we do? It could have been very serious for the population,” he said, asking not to be named.
The occupiers are drawn from a rebel group that in 2008 stopped at the gates of Goma after a hastily negotiated compromise to integrate them into the army. The deal has been unravelling ever since, with disastrous effect.
Rwanda has three times invaded its mineral-rich neighbour in recent years, but rejects UN, diplomatic and Congolese claims it is backing M23 and accuses Congo of cross-border fire into its territory.
Congo has won support from the UN security council and western governments and made progress with soliciting regional support from neighbours Angola, the Republic of Congo and Tanzania. But analysts say Rwanda’s refusal to acknowledge responsibility makes negotiating a solution near-impossible as it is not clear what is at stake.
“Rwanda won't say they back M23 so nobody can have a discussion to determine what they want,” said a regional expert.
The central African nation’s wars have killed about 5m people and many eastern areas are still plagued by violence from rebel groups, despite the UN-backed efforts to defeat them.
Uganda has blamed the escalation of fighting in eastern Congo on a leaked UN report that accused it and Rwanda of supporting Congolese rebels, a document Kampala said damaged its mediation efforts.
Kampala has vigorously denied the UN charges, which emerged in October. “Uganda was mediating in this conflict . . . and we had managed to restrain M23,” the government said. “Then the UN comes up with these wild and baseless allegations against us and we decided to step aside and leave the situation to them and now you see the results.”
Uganda has threatened to pull its troops out of peacekeeping operations in Somalia unless the UN allegations are withdrawn.
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