Rebel attacks force civilians, soldiers to flee eastern Congo
GOMA, Congo -- Mobs stoned U.N. peacekeepers' compounds Monday and thousands of people fled advancing rebel troops as chaos returned to eastern Congo, fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars.
In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back Monday from the battlefront north of the provincial capital of Goma -- fleeing any way possible, including using tanks, jeeps and commandeered cars. Soldiers honked their horns as they tried to push through throngs of displaced people on the main road.
Crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four U.N. compounds in Goma, venting outrage at what they claimed was a failure to protect them from rebels. Later in the day, peacekeepers in helicopter gunships attacked rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 30 miles north of Goma, said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg.
The U.N. said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned Monday after just a month. And Congo's president appointed a new Cabinet including a new defense minister and charged it with being "a combat government to re-establish peace."
Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease fire brokered by the U.N. in January. Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said rebel fighters were within seven miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles from downtown Goma, told the AP they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.
Tens of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By nightfall, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.
The civilians and soldiers were surging south from a major army base seized by the rebels on Sunday. As the crowds reached Goma, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.