- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2008

GOMA, Congo | Despite a recently beefed up effort by the United Nations to prevent more bloodshed, hostilities are threatening to break out again in this provincial capital in eastern Congo as rebels accused government forces of violating a cease-fire.

Government forces still control Goma, but increasing tension between troops and Tutsi rebels led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda near the city threatens to destroy a fragile peace that has endured for several weeks.

Earlier this week, the rebels claimed that government forces were advancing to within 100 yards of the rebel front lines not far from Goma. The rebels also claimed that the government was firing on rebel positions with heavy artillery, resulting in multiple casualties.

The rebels could be laying the groundwork for new attacks as peace talks in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, have been postponed until the new year, a senior U.N. military official said.

Gen. Nkunda “sees he can’t get any respect [at the peace talks] in Nairobi, so now I wouldn’t be surprised if he attacks again,” said the official who asked not to be identified to avoid prejudicing his position.

On Oct. 29Gen. Nkunda decided to stop short of taking Goma even though the government army performed poorly, giving ground swiftly and looting shops in Goma while retreating.

Should his rebel army decide it wants Goma, neither the government nor the United Nations appears in a position to stop it.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council voted to extend and refocus a peacekeeping mission of 17,000 troopsin the war-ravaged country. The force is to concentrate on North and South Kivu provinces in the eastern part of Congo, where as many as 300,000 people have been forced from their villages and fields in recent months. The U.N. peacekeepers are to have authority to protect civilians from all armed groups: rebels, government troops, militias and tribal paramilitaries.

The force can now perform “cordon-and-search” operations in areas where they believe armed groups threaten civilians, the resolution said.

But the U.N. military official in Goma, asked what changes the new mandate would have on operations, said, “I don’t think it will make any difference. Nothing will change.”

The hostilities stem from the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, when Hutus massacred ethnic Tutsis after the death of a Hutu president in a suspicious plane crash. The Tutsis eventually took control of Rwanda and many Hutus fled to Congo, which has large numbers of both ethnic groups.

In recent months, Gen. Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi who fought in Rwanda and later joined the Congolese army, led fellow Tutsis inseizing territory and pushing government troops out of large sections of North Kivu. The fighting has forced tens of thousands to the shrinking area around Goma still controlled by the government. The rebels are now only 10 miles away.

While the rebels number only 4,000, they are battle-hardened guerrillas, and a powerful military force.

U.N. camps set up for internally displaced people, such as Camp Kibati on the outskirts of Goma, are already overpopulated and continue to swell with new arrivals, including women with young children.

“We have been here for one week now,” said one young mother of three who declined to give her name, “and they have given us no food.”

Packed into shelters of plastic sheeting wrapped over crude frames, fractured families sleep on the dirt, cushioned only with corn husks and blankets. Many of the children are sick, wan and listless; a camp doctor said many are in danger of dying from diarrhea.

There are other, unofficial camps that are not managed by any government or agency.

If the conditions at Camp Kibati are wretched, these are worse. At one camp on the outskirts of Goma beside the road to Sake, there are hundreds of huts, framed with twigs and ineffectually thatched with corn husks and cardboard, surrounding a local Baptist church. The first aid shipment arrived only a few days ago even though many of the camp’s inhabitants have been there for nearly a year. It was a load of yellow plastic sheeting, which was put to good use as roofing. The densely spaced huts now spread outward from the rustic church like so many canary yellow mushrooms.

Most of the people at the camp fled Masisi and Rutshuru districts when Gen. Nkunda’s forces pushed the Congolese army out of their towns. Amani Pacific, a man in his early thirties, was an English teacher in Masisi. He said the rebels wanted to enlist him as an interpreter but he and his pregnant wife crept out of town at 2 a.m. and walked for three days through the bush to get to the camp.

As Mr. Pacific told his story, a crowd gathered and he acted as interpreter. One elderly man presented a proposal by the local farmer’s association, outlining the group’s dire need of seeds and basic tools to cultivate the empty land behind the church.

An older woman approached and removed her shirt to show where a rebel bullet had torn through her shoulder. The wound was months old, and had mostly healed. But the ripped and gaping scars demonstrated the low level of medical care she received. She also had a large blade scar across the lower part of her face, but when asked about it, she turned away unsteadily.

U.N. peacekeepers at headquarters in Goma said there has been heavy fighting recently around Rutshuru between the rebels and local militia Mai Mai forces.

On Dec. 21, an aid convoy reached a displaced persons camp in the Rutshuru area.

U.N. field officer F. Nakwafio Kasai said nothing remained. “All the camps [around Rutshuru] are empty,” he said. “They have all left. All the shelters have been destroyed.”

U.N. officials said the camps’ inhabitants had probably fled the Tutsi followers of Gen. Nkunda, and were hiding in the bush.

According to the U.N., both Gen. Nkunda’s forces and rogue government army troops have looted, kidnapped, killed and raped innocent civilians.

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