Rebel forces in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have said they plan to take control of the whole of the vast central African country after they captured the eastern town of Goma while United Nations peacekeepers looked on.
Report by Reuters
A spokesperson for the M23 rebels, a group widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, said they planned to “liberate” the country, by moving to the town of Bukavu and then marching on the capital, Kinshasa, nearly 1 600km away.
The rebels have previously said they were seeking talks with DRC President Joseph Kabila over the failed implementation of a peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in 2009.
“The journey to liberate Congo has started now … We’re going to move on to Bukavu and then to Kinshasa. Are you ready to join us?” Vianney Kazarama, spokesperson for the M23 rebels, told a crowd in a stadium in Goma.
The M23 rebellion has aggravated tensions between Congo and its neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa’s government says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing the chaotic region’s mineral wealth, which includes diamonds, gold and coltan, used in mobile phones.
The surprise announcement by the rebels came as diplomats at the United Nations and regional mediators in Central Africa have been seeking to prevent an escalation of hostilities in Congo, a resource-rich country the size of Western Europe.
Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met later on Wednesday after holding three-way talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Tuesday, sources in the Ugandan presidency said.
In New York, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution late on Tuesday condemning the seizure of Goma.
The French government expressed frustration with UN peacekeepers, who gave up the battle for the town of one million after Congo’s army retreated.
DRC has accused neighbouring Rwanda, whose army had repeatedly intervened in Congo’s conflicts during the last 15 years, of backing the rebels. Kigali denies the charge and has called for dialogue.
Appeal for calm
Rebels used local radio and television stations to appeal for calm, but there are fears of human rights abuses and tens of thousands of people have already fled days of fighting between the rebels and UN-backed Congolese soldiers.
At the UN, the 15-member council approved the resolution drafted by France, releasing a statement that “demands the immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma, the cessation of any further advances by the M23 and that its members immediately and permanently disband and lay down their arms”.
While conflict has simmered almost constantly in Congo’s east in recent years, this is the first time Goma has fallen to rebels since foreign occupying armies officially pulled out under peace deals at the end of the most recent 1998-2003 war.
Aid agencies have estimated that five million people have died from fighting and conflict-related diseases since the 1998 war began.