Anxiety in East Congo as Rebels Approach

November 19th, 2008 - by admin

Todd Pitman / Associated Press – 2008-11-19 22:53:57

KANYABAYONGA, Congo (November 18, 2008) — On one side of this mountaintop ghost town, a line of black-booted rebels approaches on foot with rockets and tin boxes of ammunition, seizing new territory with each footstep despite promises of a cease-fire.

On the other side, government soldiers in flip-flops balancing portable generators and luggage on their heads have begun to flee.

In between, the vast Central African nation’s deepening humanitarian crisis is laid bare: Thousands of desperate civilians who once lived in this eastern Congo town huddle against coils of concertina wire surrounding a base for U.N. peacekeepers, waiting nervously as the rebels approach.

“We are hungry and thirsty, but we don’t want any aid. We want security,” said 30-year-old Jeff Machozi, who built a tent three days ago with tree branches and bamboo he ripped out of the earth. “We want this war to stop.”

Clashes between fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the army and its allied spear-wielding militias exploded in August and have displaced at least 250,000 people.

But those refugee figures do not include people in remote towns such as Kanyabayonga, whose entire population has fled, or Kayna, another town just to the north, which was virtually deserted Monday.

Kanyabayonga is about 80 miles north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Nkunda told U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo Sunday that he was committed to a cease-fire, but his troops have been carving out an even greater territory in the remote hills north of Goma.

Early Monday, the rebels took control of Rwindi, the headquarters of Virunga National Park, after a night spent trading artillery and mortar fire with army forces. Rwindi is 10 miles south of Kanyabayonga.

U.N. peacekeepers at a base in Rwindi that was between the two sides said rounds flew overhead for more than an hour. Some exploded nearby, and one Indian soldier in a trench was wounded in the head by shrapnel, U.N. commanders at the base said.

Later Monday morning, peacekeepers said they woke to find rebels in the town.

By afternoon, rebel fighters were marching single file by the side of the road north toward Kanyabayonga, built on a hilltop. Wearing crisp military uniforms and black Wellington boots, they carried rockets, generators and Kalashnikov rifles.

Many residents had mixed feelings about the U.N. mission in Kanyabayonga. Its mere presence offers a modicum of security in a lawless part of the world, but refugees are skeptical about what protection the peacekeepers offer.

“The U.N. does nothing,” said John Mbusa, 60, said he fled Kanyabayonga last week after an earlier round of fighting drew near. “When there is fighting, they don’t even come out. They stare at us.”

Congo has the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops, but the peacekeepers have been unable to either stop the fighting or protect civilians.

© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.

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