Soldiers, UN Retreat As Rebels Advance in Congo

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Associated Press

Soldiers, UN Retreat As Rebels Advance in Congo

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The United Nations refugee agency has said around 30,000 displaced people have started to arrive at a camp near the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo after fresh fighting. (AFP/Walter Astrada)

KILIMANYOKA, Congo  - Congo rebels closed in relentlessly on the
provincial capital of Goma on Tuesday, despite being attacked by U.N.
peacekeepers in helicopters. Government troops scrambled south in a
full-scale retreat, fleeing in tanks, trucks and on foot.

Adding
to the melee, tens of thousands of civilians jammed the roads, fearing
the rebel army that has a reputation for brutality. Many were carrying
huge bundles of clothes, pots and bedding on their heads and swaddled
infants on their chests. Even young children balanced sacks of food on
their heads, walking along rutted roads in bare feet.

Thousands spent the night sleeping on the muddy ground, with no protection from tropical showers.

Peacekeepers
in attack helicopters fired at the rebels Monday trying to stop them
taking Kibumba, a village on the main road 30 miles (48 kilometers)
north of Goma. But fleeing civilians say the fighters overran Kibumba
anyway.

On Tuesday, a U.N. helicopter gunship patrolled the sky
at Kilimanyoka, seven miles (12 kilometers) north of Goma. Rebel
spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said he expected the helicopters to soon
attack their front line, which he said is within 20 kilometers (12
miles) of Goma.

In the city itself, a white U.N. tank and two
armored cars guarded the U.N. headquarters and Congolese police in riot
gear kept watch. That didn't stop scores of refugees from lobbing rocks
Tuesday at U.N. tanks, as Uruguayan troops headed away quickly from the
battlefield.

"What are they doing? They are supposed to protect us," complained Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse from Kibumba.

On
Monday, peacekeepers fired into the air at one U.N. compound that came
under a hail of rocks, and city leaders said three people were killed.
Mobs hurled the stones to protest the U.N.'s failure to protect them
from the rebels, despite having 17,000 peacekeepers in its Congo
mission.

Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has vowed to seize this
lakeside city of 600,000 on the border with Rwanda. Nkunda signed a
ceace-fire with the government in January, but defected because he said
the government showed no interest in protecting his Tutsi people - a
tiny minority of 3 percent in east Congo - from Rwandan Hutu militiamen
who escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
Some half a million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered in that genocide.

But
Nkunda's ambitions have expanded since he launched a fresh onslaught on
Aug. 28 - he now declares he will "liberate" all of Congo, a country
the size of Western Europe.

More than 200,000 people have been
forced from their homes in the last two months, the U.N. says, joining
1.2 million displaced in previous conflicts in the east. Outbreaks of
cholera and diarrhea have killed dozens in camps, compounding the
misery.

Congo's president appointed a new Cabinet on Monday,
including a new defense minister charged with establishing "a combat
government to re-establish peace."

The U.N. response appeared
scattered. As some tanks fled the fighting, U.N. officials ordered
staff to stay home Tuesday and away from rock-throwing mobs. The
commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned Monday
after just a month on the job, and officials were hastily trying to
find a permanent successor.

The chief U.N. mandate is to protect
the population. But since the peace deal it also is helping the
Congolese army disarm and repatriate Hutu militiamen - by force if
necessary.

Yet Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, claimed Tuesday the Congolese army has abandoned dozens of its positions to Hutu militiamen.

"It's
the Hutus who are on the front line and whom we are fighting, not the
army," he said. U.N. peacekeepers "leave us no choice but to fight on."

Nkunda
long has charged that Congolese soldiers fight alongside the militia of
Hutus, an ethnic majority of about 40 percent in the region.

Some
800 Hutu militiamen have voluntarily returned to Rwanda, the U.N. says,
but the fighters recruit and coerce Congolese Hutu children and young
men into their ranks daily - far outnumbering those who have returned
home.

U.N. efforts to halt Nkunda's rebellion are complicated by
the country's rugged terrain, dense tropical forests that roll over
hills and mountains with few roads.

U.N. provincial chief Hiroute
Guebre Selassie told angry civil leaders on Monday that Nkunda's
fighters were using guerrilla tactics that make it difficult for the
conventional U.N. forces to respond.

"We cannot use the
helicopters to prevent them advancing, because they hide in the bush,
they fight on many fronts, and they hide themselves among the
population," she said. "(That) strategy makes it very difficult for us
to master the situation."

Civil leaders led by Jason Luneno said
if U.N. peacekeepers cannot halt the rebel advance, the peacekeepers
should leave Congo and "the people will descend into the streets to
demand the government resign."

Guebre Selassie said the U.N.,
like Congo's government, does not believe there is a military solution
to the quagmire in eastern Congo.

But tensions also are high on
the diplomatic front. Congo this week repeated charges that Rwanda's
Tutsi-led government is sending troops across the border to reinforce
Nkunda. Rwanda denies the charges and the U.N. says they are unfounded.

In
the village of Kibati, wailing babies and children with worried frowns
are among thousands of refugees who, like Maombi, have no idea where
they are headed.

"What can we do? We have nothing," the nurse said.

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