GOMA, Congo – Furious mobs stoned U.N. peacekeepers’ compounds Monday and thousands of desperate people fled advancing rebel troops as chaos returned to eastern Congo, fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country’s unrelenting civil wars.
In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back Monday from the battlefront north of the provincial capital of Goma – fleeing any way possible, including using tanks, jeeps and commandeered cars. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of displaced people on the main road.
Crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds in Goma, venting outrage at what they claimed was a failure to protect them from rebels. Later in the day, peacekeepers in helicopter gunships attacked rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 30 miles north of Goma, said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg.
The U.N. said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned Monday after just a month. And Congo’s president appointed a new Cabinet including a new defense minister and charged it with being “a combat government to re-establish peace.”
Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire brokered by the U.N. in January. Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Tens of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By nightfall, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.
The peacekeeper assault Monday was the second in a year against Nkunda’s rebels. In December, U.N. officials also used attack helicopters to repel the rebels, killing hundreds under their mandate to protect civilians in the vast Central African country that has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war.
People in eastern Congo are furious that the U.N. peacekeeping mission – the biggest in the world with 17,000 troops – has been unable to protect them from the rebels. The United Nations said Friday that more than 200,000 people have fled their homes in eastern Congo in just the past two months, with 15,000 on Sunday. Tens of thousands fled Monday.
Congo has been ravaged by years of dictatorship and civil war that have kept people from profiting from vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006. But the new government has struggled to assert its control of the sprawling country, which is the size of Western Europe, particularly in the east.