NAIROBI, Kenya – Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo announced Wednesday a unilateral cease-fire that should stem violence that has displaced 200,000 people since August.
Earlier in the day, false reports about advancing rebels sent thousands of panicked families fleeing a displacement camp and storming into the city of Goma, where they jammed streets, rioted and attacked U.N. vehicles.
A spokesman for rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda confirmed the cease-fire agreement, but provided no further details.
Experts said the rebel leader, who claims to be fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis, is likely moving to solidify his recent territorial gains in the hopes that it will give him an upper hand in peace talks with the government.
It remained unclear how long any cease-fire might hold. Past agreements between Nkunda and the government have quickly collapsed.
Government officials could not be reached for comment, but officials at the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo heralded the announcement.
“This gives peace a chance and the humanitarian community will be able to organize themselves,” said Madnodje Mounoubai, a U.N. spokesman in the capital, Kinshasa.
The cease-fire agreement capped a chaotic day in the northeastern region of Congo, which has been plagued by war and insecurity for more than a decade.
The mass hysteria, sparked by the sight of deserting government soldiers, underscored the growing volatility of the crisis.
U.N. officials denied there were any rebel incursions toward Goma, headquarters for the 17,000-soldier U.N. peacekeeping force. “It was just panic among civilians,” Mounoubai said.
The chaos apparently began at an overcrowded displacement facility about six miles north of the city, where 45,000 people have swarmed in recent days.
By midafternoon, camp dwellers saw government soldiers running away from the battlefield and toward Goma. Fearing rebels were in hot pursuit, thousands of people spontaneously joined the exodus, carrying children, goats, mattresses and water cans on their backs.
“The army ran, so we must too,” said Bingo Mamashagu, father of four.
By early afternoon, the crowd reached Goma, which had been calm for most of the day, and the city erupted into chaos. “They stampeded into the city.” said Ron Redmond, spokesman of the U.N. refugee agency.
It was unclear why government soldiers were retreating toward Goma, but some reports suggested they might have feared Rwandan troops were preparing to intervene on the side of rebels.
A spokesman for Nkunda accused government soldiers of ransacking the town as they fled.
“They are looting and killing the people in Goma,” said Bertrand Bisimwa, a spokesman for Nkunda’s National Congress for People’s Defense. “We want to see (the U.N.) act to stop this.”
Casualties were unclear late Wednesday, but there were unconfirmed reports of people being injured in the melee or being struck by fleeing cars. Shooting, reportedly by soldiers, could be heard into the late evening.
The cease-fire comes just as humanitarian groups were warning that the displacement crisis was approaching catastrophic levels.