NAIROBI, Kenya — The Congolese army fled and United Nations peacekeepers watched paralyzed as Rwandan-linked rebels wrapped up a stunning five-day offensive Tuesday by strolling into one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most important cities, Goma, sending shock waves through troubled central Africa.
Goma is the hub for international aid organizations and the region’s minerals trade, and few thought it was at risk of falling until just days ago. That’s when the M23 rebels – named for the March 23, 2009, treaty that integrated them into the Congolese army – began their lightning advance, easily pushing through the army’s weak resistance.
The capture of Goma triggered fears that history would repeat itself, recalling when Rwandan troops occupied parts of eastern Congo in 1998, touching off a five-year war that sucked in eight countries and caused the deaths of millions of Congolese. United Nations reports and Western diplomats accuse Rwanda of heavily backing the M23 rebels, a charge Rwanda fiercely denies.
Congolese officials dismissed those denials.
"Rwanda is blackmailing our government and our country," said Lambert Mende, a government spokesman. He pledged that there would be no negotiations.
The United States, which bases a small number of troops at Dungu, about 365 miles north of Goma, said it was working through the United Nations for a cease-fire and tougher sanctions on the M23, according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. It was far from certain that those efforts would prevent the collapse of the monstrous Democratic Republic of Congo, which covers a vast area with few roads or institutions.
The enmity in this region is fierce among a variety of ethnic groups and interests. Rwanda claims that Congo is a haven for the masterminds of its 1994 genocide, when Hutu tribesmen butchered an estimated 800,000 rival ethnic Tutsis. Critics say Rwanda and its heavy-fisted dictator-president, Paul Kagame, a Tutsi who rose to power after the ruling Hutus were deposed, profit from controlling eastern Congo’s mineral trade. The M23 is made up primarily of Tutsis.
Fighting broke out about 19 miles outside of Goma last Thursday, breaking a de facto two-month cease-fire between Congolese troops and the rebels. In just days, the rebels had pushed to the outskirts of Goma as foreigners scrambled to evacuate.
Reports from the scene suggest that the heavy fighting lasted only about three hours Tuesday. The Congolese army folded with little resistance and U.N. peacekeepers remained in their vehicles and watched.
The speed with which Goma fell is sure to raise questions about the relevancy of the Congolese government. President Joseph Kabila already is viewed as ineffectual, and what little political good will he had dissolved following widespread irregularities that tainted his re-election last year. His government now has little choice but to negotiate over its territory after its decisive defeat.
The U.N., meanwhile, has a huge mission designed to help maintain stability in Congo’s east and prevent human rights abuses by the armed groups; yet, critics argue, has done neither.
At first, the United Nations peacekeeping mission pounded the advancing rebels from helicopters. But, as the rebels advanced, eyewitnesses say, the U.N. took a different tack. On Tuesday, peacekeepers and M23 rebels patrolled past each other on Goma streets with neither challenging the other.
Goma residents took the brunt of the conflict, according to some reports.
"The looting and pillaging has been very severe," said Tariq Riebl, aid group Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator in Goma. "Our own staff has been attacked. Lots of people have been attacked."
In a statement, the United Nations mission in Congo, known as MONUSCO by its French acronym, said that its troops maintained control of the Goma airport and pledged to “remain actively present in Goma and will continue all efforts within their capabilities to protect civilians from imminent threat."
But the Congolese government and M23 said that the rebels controlled the airport, and the Congolese government announced that it had moved the provincial administration and military regional command to Beni, 150 miles north of Goma.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @alanboswell