Embers of Rwandan Genocide Flare

Tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting in eastern Congo are desperate for food rations and other international aid.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008

GOMA, Congo, Oct. 29 -- An escalation of Congo's long-simmering conflict reached the gates of this provincial capital Wednesday as a rebel offensive sent tens of thousands of villagers fleeing toward the city and government soldiers left their posts.

All afternoon, columns of frantic people fled the front lines on wooden bikes piled with clothes and sacks of flour or on foot, balancing sons and daughters, mattresses and suitcases.

Over the past decade, two civil wars and fighting among militia groups have left millions dead in strife rooted in the unresolved aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. On Wednesday, the tensions threatened to flare into yet another war, despite the presence of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the region.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, a cultish figure who has the sympathy of neighboring Rwanda, has said he is fighting to protect the region's minority ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias that fled to eastern Congo after the genocide. He recently expanded his ambitions, however, saying he wished to "liberate" all of Congo. As his forces approached the city Wednesday, Congolese military commanders abandoned their troops, escaping to nearby villages, melting into the city or leaving by boat across sprawling Lake Kivu.

"The army has lost the war, so a new situation has arisen," said European Union envoy Roland Van de Geer. "We will have to see what is happening now. The army is beaten, and I don't think we can expect [peacekeepers] to solve the problems."

Nkunda agreed to a "unilateral cease-fire" and told U.N. officials that his forces would not enter this city of 600,000 people to avoid further panic.

"We can't emphasize how desperate the situation is on the ground right now," said U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe.

Among those fleeing toward Goma were more than 45,000 displaced people from a camp in the area, Okabe said. Another 1,000 civilians went to neighboring Uganda during the past 24 hours, and hundreds more were preparing to make the journey to escape fighting.

"I ran during the first war. I ran when the volcano erupted. I ran last month, and this is the fourth time I'm running," said a man hurrying down a road crowded with thousands headed to uncertain safety in Goma.

U.N. officials said that their force was stretched beyond its limits and that it needed help from a heavily armed multinational force to ensure the safety of Congolese civilians.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told reporters in Paris that the E.U. has the capacity to deploy up to 1,500 troops within 10 days. But the proposal met initial resistance from other European governments, and a spokeswoman for the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said that "no intervention of a military nature by the European Union has been discussed," Agence France-Presse reported.

The rebel advance followed a chaotic day that began with the Rwandan army firing tank rounds into eastern Congo, sharply escalating tensions between the two nations. The fighting sent tens of thousands of people running from the hills toward Goma, where many had no plan other than to sleep in the streets, mud or grass.

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