GOMA, Congo – A rebel group believed to be backed by Rwanda seized the strategic, provincial capital of Goma in eastern Congo on Tuesday, home to more than 1 million people as well as an international airport in a development that threatens to spark a new, regional war, officials and witnesses said.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south.
Thousands of residents fled across the border to Rwanda, the much-smaller nation to the east which is accused of funneling arms and recruits to the M23 rebels.
By early afternoon the gunfire had stopped and M23 soldiers marched down the potholed main boulevards, unimpeded. Their senior commanders, who the United Nations has accused of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, paraded around the town in all-terrain vehicles, waving to the thousands of people who left their barricaded houses to see them.
The United Nations peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during Tuesday’s battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who expressed frustration over the lack of action by the peacekeepers.
“MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions (at the airport). We ask that the MONUSCO do more,” he said.
A U.N. spokesman said in New York said that the nearly 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle. The peacekeepers “cannot substitute for the efforts of national forces” in Congo, said spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
Today the Security Council will review the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo. A resolution adopted Tuesday by the Security Council asks the U.N. secretary-general to recommend possible redeployment, and possible “additional force multipliers.”
The resolution approved unanimously by the council imposes targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze on the M23 rebel group leadership.