Congo: International community fears refugee crisis

Joseph Kabila meets with M23 rebel group in Uganda, after regional summit called on them to end their offensive.

Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has held direct talks with the leader of the M23 rebels in Uganda, hours after a regional summit called on them to end their offensive in the east of the country. Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, the political leader of the eastern DR Congo rebel group, said he had an initial meeting with Kabila after the summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. While he was not invited to the summit itself, Runiga Lugerero told the AFP news agency he had been able to meet Kabila thanks to the mediation of Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president, with whom he had been due to hold talks.

“The atmosphere was tense but afterwards, each [side] calmed the debate down because these are not personal problems, but problems of the country” that must be settled, he told AFP news agency by phone. “I think the meeting went very well”.

Uneasy negotiations and continuing fighting

Leaders at the summit in the Ugandan capital on 18 November said that the rebels should withdraw to positions at least 20 km north of Goma, the eastern DRC town in the province of North Kivu of which they have recently took control. Runiga Lugerero, however, made it clear that any withdrawal would only come about after talks between the rebel movement and Kabila. M23 fighters will defend their positions if Congo’s troops attacked, he warned.

Runiga Lugerero’s announcement came just days after Kabila had appeared to rule out talks with the rebel force. Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president accused of backing the rebels, did not attend the Kampala summit and instead delegated his foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo. Rwanda and Uganda, also accused by the UN of supporting the rebels, deny the charges.

Al Jazeera’s reporter Peter Greste from Kampala said M23 political leaders will have another round of talks with Kabila again in the Ugandan capital. Raymond Tshibanda, Congolese foreign minister, confirmed that the first meeting took place but said further face-to-face talks between Kabila and M23 were unlikely. “It’s very hard for the Congolese government to acknowledge that they are speaking to the rebels as they consider them an illegitimate group”, Greste said.

The United Nations has expressed shock at the sight of thousands of civilians fleeing a rebel advance in the eastern DR Congo and appealed for access to help those caught up in the violence. Thousands of civilians are fleeing the town of Sake in eastern DR Congo as M23 rebels battling government troops threaten to overrun the city.

Fighters pushed south along Lake Kivu near the new rebel stronghold of Goma on the Rwandan border on Friday. The rebels’ advance comes days after they took Goma, the biggest city in North Kivu province, and have vowed to expand their territorial control and even seize the capital, Kinshasa, although the city is 1,574km away.

The fighting has sparked fears of a wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region, and the rebels have largely ignored calls made in a joint communique by the presidents of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda to pull out of Goma.

An AFP photographer said the latest fighting had claimed one life in Sake. He said he saw a body in the city centre on Friday, a day after the rebels entered the city, while the head of a relief agency reported numerous casualties. “There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, who heads the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told AFP, without providing specific figures.

Government officials said that Congolese troops were trying to repulse the rebels but M23 appeared to have successfully repelled the counterattack. Aid officials said the fighting has made camps for people displaced by earlier conflicts inaccessible, with food and medicines running short.

Violence and refugees

A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in the country, known under the acronym MONUSCO, described the situation in eastern DR Congo as “alarming”. “The M23 are now present in Sake, with reports indicating that they may be on the move toward Masisi territory, which is their stronghold”, Kieran Dwyer said in a statement.

The UN has an estimated 6,700 troops in North Kivu backing up government forces under a Security Council mandate to protect civilians. They have been criticised for not directly confronting the M23. MONUSCO has airlifted dozens of local leaders and rights activists who feared for their lives out of rebel territory, Dwyer said.

The UN mission was also verifying reports of civilians wounded or killed due to the recent fighting in Goma and Sake, Dwyer added. “There are also reports of targeted killings and health personnel being abducted by the M23. Reports of recruitment and abduction of children by the group continue”, he said.

M23 military leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, in Kinshasa, protesters accused the rebels of abuses including the rape of pregnant women. Hundreds of women, clad in black, marched on the UN mission’s headquarters, carrying banners calling for peace and criticising the country’s small but militarily powerful neighbour. “No to Rwanda!” read one. The M23 fighters are widely thought to be backed by neighbouring Rwanda.

The UN estimates that 140,000 people in and around Goma have been displaced as the result of recent fighting.

The role of external actors

The UN Security Council has expressed “concern at reports indicating that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment”. The council did not name Rwanda whose experts have previously accused it of backing the rebels, who share the same Tutsi ethnicity with Rwandan President Paul Kagame but are Congolese.

The rebels advanced as their political chief Jean-Marie Runiga was due to meet the president of Uganda on the eve of the Kampala summit of leaders from Africa’s Great Lakes region. Regional and international leaders are scrambling to halt the latest violence in the Great Lakes area, fuelled by a mix of local and regional politics, ethnic rifts and competition for big reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in electronics and other high-value products.

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The rebellion was launched eight months ago by mutinous troops accusing the government of failing to stick to a 2009 deal with fighters to end a previous conflict. The rebels take their name – M23 – after that peace agreement which was signed on March 23, 2009.

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