The rebels fighting the Democratic Republic of Congo’s government troops in the east of the country say they will capture Goma if government forces fail to protect civilians, according to a statement released by the rebel group.
The announcement on Wednesday came as the rebel group, known as the M23 movement, unveiled their political leadership just as the United Nations said it would be sending more peacekeepers to help protect cities as fighting and instability spreads across the province.
Bishop Jean Marie Runiga, the M23 political leader, said the rebels were dissatisfied by recent events in Goma, the North Kivu provincial capital, where on Tuesday mobs targetted ethnic Tutsi individuals from neighbouring Rwanda.
“When we see civilians communities regardless whether they are Tutsis, whether Warenga, whether Washi … If we see they are being mistreated and the government has failed to safeguard them and MONUSCO has failed to protect them; we shall capture Goma, that is the truth because our role is to protect the civilian communities,” Runiga said.
Al Jazeera’s Peter Greste, reporting from Goma, said in the absence of a clear military objective, it was difficult to assess the risk to the provincial capital.
“It is not really clear what M23 is hoping to achieve,” our correspondent said. “Their statements are vague, and it is difficult to assess how determined they are to attack Goma.
“They are up against MONUSCO and possibly some resistance from Congolese army, [but] it would be a risky venture.”
“Number one, whatever has been signed in agreement must stand. Number two, the problems in Congo … there are issues of democracy, there are issues of human rights … activists are not allowed to work as they are supposed to. We have a problem; the population is
– Jean Marie Runiga, M23 political leader
Authorities in DR Congo on Tuesday accused neighbouring Rwanda of “invading” its volatile eastern borderlands, portraying the advancing rebel insurgency as a Rwandan military operation.
The Rwandan government has consistently denied allegations by Congolese officials and United Nations investigators that it is fomenting and supporting the Tutsi-dominated M23 rebel movement in mineral-rich North Kivu province.
Runiga said issues of governance and human rights must be addressed for peace to prevail in the country.
“Number one, whatever has been signed in agreement must stand. Number two, the problems in Congo … There are issues of democracy, there are issues of human rights, issues affecting journalists; others have been killed, others have been locked up, activists are not allowed to work as they are supposed to. We have a problem; the population is neglected. They don’t eat. That is a big problem,” Runiga said.
The rebels, described by UN officials as well-equipped and growing in number, drove back the Congolese army in a determined offensive over the last few days, forcing UN peacekeepers to withdraw into isolated operating bases in the hilly countryside.
This has opened the way for a possible advance by M23 on the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, where UN forces have reinforced their positions to block any attempted rebel assault.
UN armoured vehicles were guarding major crossroads of the city and also patrolled the outskirts.
The latest fighting In North Kivu has once again displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and raised tensions between uneasy neighbours Congo and Rwanda in the Great Lakes region at the heart of Africa.
The rebel successes have also embarrassed the army and government of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila.
The M23 rebels, who include mutineers from the Congo army, take their name from a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous Tutsi-led rebellion in North Kivu.
Like the 2004-2009 rebellion, the current mutiny has its roots in ethnic and political wounds dating back to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Later invasions of Congo by Rwandan forces and Kigali’s backing of Congolese rebels fuelled two successive wars that killed several million people.
Rebel commanders and MONUSCO said have rebels since pulled back from some of the seized positions. A
witness told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that M23 fighters continued to occupy a military base in Rumangabo, just 40km north of Goma.
The official said MONUSCO was helping the Congolese army reinforce the road from Rutshuru to Goma to prevent
further advances by M23 and ensure government soldiers were able to return to their positions to help protect of
civilians. The exact death toll from the recent fighting is yet unknown.