As the UN forces in the DR Congo, MONUSCO, use helicopter gunships to repel M23 insurgents, who are now 6km from Goma, the UN Security Council finally held an emergency session.
The fighting at Kibumba that started in the early hours of Thursday (15/11), has been intense. After Congolese army forces kept control of Kibumba followed by a brief lull on Friday, fighting resumed in the early hours of Saturday with a renewed attacks by M23 at Kibumba, Mboga and Ruhondo hills.
Local civil society activists reported seeing at least 3 Mercedes trucks full of troops crossing the border on Friday afternoon via Ndjerima in Rubavu on the Rwandan border ostensibly reinforcing M23 insurgents. Reports also came in of artillery fire from across the border in Rwanda. Rwanda is also claiming missiles were fired into their territory and local people had been hit by stray bullets.
With a heavy weapons attack by M23 on FARDC troop positions and hundreds of civilians fleeing the bombardments, UN troops deployed air power to hit rebel positions.
“So far ten missions have been carried out by our attack helicopters,” the U.N. said in a statement on Saturday. The U.N. mandate which is principally to protect civilians was given a few extra teeth to support government troops when needed. This comes after critics had accused MONUSCO of sitting on the sidelines.
As reports of the fighting filtered in early Saturday, M23 information teams were quick to take to social media and radio to claim victory. Interestingly, despite claims to be falsely accused of supporting the insurgency, Rwandan government staff were quick to echo them
Kibumba fell in the afternoon and it emerged that M23 insurgents were equiped with night-vision goggles and 120mm mortars. However, while FARDC pulled back the fighting continued all day with major clashes outside Kibati, 17km from Goma.
The Congolese government alleges that 3,500 troops had crossed the border from Rwanda in support for the M23. The Rwandan government has strongly denied the claim and called for a cessation in the fighting. Rwandan foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, also called for an end to ‘extra-regional meddling’. In response to my question asking for clarification as to what exactly she meant by this she replied: “external negative support from those who, unlike our people, do not suffer the consequences of DRC crisis.”
Human Rights Watch UN director Philippe Bolopion said “we are gathering credible reports from independent witnesses, including alongside the border, that Rwandan troops have crossed into DRC since Thursday morning to support M23 fighters.”
Meanwhile, the town of Goma has been on high alert with security increased at the airport and other key locations. In a pre-arranged plan all UN staff were ordered to report to their base ‘for security’. This has included N Kivu Governor, Julian Paluku and other important administrative staff. FARDC troops along with MONUSCO are fighting the rebels on two fronts at least 6 to 10km from the town and the sound of gunfire is increasing considerably. Local journalists are reporting that wives of frontline soldiers, who marched through the town on Saturday calling for peace, are frantic. However, residents say that people attended church as they usually do although the streets are now almost deserted.
Local radio journalists are also reporting that people are now fleeing the IDP camp at Kanyarucinya, fearing that the camp will also be taken. The number of IDPs has increased considerably and humanitarian needs are overwhelming according to local NGOs. Update 15:00 the Kanyarucinya camp is now empty and all IDPs have relocated to Mungunga.
Rumour has been rife and M23 supporters have taken to the internet to spread panic and disinformation. Many were saying the airport at Goma had fallen when an eyewitness confirmed that it was firmly in the hands of FARDC and MONUSCO. FARDC troops are patrolling all the roads into town and at the intersections. There are around 6,700 peacekeepers in Nord Kivu province with approximately 1,500 troops in Goma. At 16:00 GMT information came in that FARDC has sent reinforcements to Goma and is maintaining positions.
FARDC and MONUSCO are currently fighting the rebels at Munigi 5km north of Goma and a German journalist, Simone Schlindwein who is at the frontline, reported that MONUSCO vehicles just crossed into the M23 frontline and all people fled. M23 are still insisting they do not intend to take Goma.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting in New York in the light of the deteriorating situation. However, while they condemned the attacks, threatened further ‘sanctions’ and acknowledged that M23 had sophisticated equipment including night-sight vision goggles and 120mm mortars, they only referred to ‘foreign support’ in general terms despite both Rwanda and Uganda being identified by numerous sources.
The identification of Rwanda and Uganda as the main behind-the-scenes protagonists has come not only from the UN Group of Experts reports but also other sources including Human Rights Watch and the Rift Valley Institute’s newly launched Usalama Project. The latter also cited ‘3 foreign embassies in Kigali, Rwanda’ as confirming Rwandan backing for the rebels.
During a question and answer session in Kampala, Sunday, the Ugandan prime minister was still sabre rattling with threats to withdraw Ugandan troops from missions with AMISOM while simultaneously claiming relations with the Congolese government were ‘cordial’ in other areas.
Alongside the threats to Goma, FARDC have been clashing with M23 affiliates, Mai Mai Sheka at Pinga, in northern Masisi territory. FARDC are reported to have pulled back from Pinga and 100s more people have fled. Jason Stearns also reports: “forces allied to the Congolese army pushed toward Rutshuru town from the north, coming into Mabenga village, with shooting heard as far south as Kiwanja. Also, fighting has been reported to the north of Bunagana on the Ugandan border since Saturday.”
DR Congo has finally managed to persuade the Ugandan government to close the border at Bunagana. The crossing was a major source of revenue for M23 and also allowed the transport of weapons and troops into the Congo from elsewhere.
M23 are now saying they don’t want to take the war into Goma but want talks to rescue the 2009 accord. By pushing to the edge of Goma they have considerably upped their bargaining power. However, while a political solution is inevitable,the danger is they continue with their parallel power structures as they did before. The signal it would send to other militias is that violence achieves goals. Furthermore, as Makenga is now under sanctions it is hard to see what the Congolese government will do with him. Meanwhile, the Head of the Congo army has arrived in Goma, and the Minister of Defence is in Bukavu, top-level negotiations are taking place in Kampala, Uganda. This evening Goma is calm and M23 rebels have retreated voluntarily back to Kibumba.
19/11/2012 update: M23 have issued a statement to the press, demanding direct negotiations with Kinshasa, FARDC troops to disarm/leave Goma, and for the Bunagana border post to be re-opened. Demands that, apart from the crack in the door of further negotiations, would make it impossible for Joseph Kabila to concede.
The government of DR Congo rejected calls by M23 for direct talks saying they are a fiction created by Rwanda. Reuters quotes Lambert Mende:”M23 is defined by the government as a fiction created by Rwanda to hide their criminal activities against the DRC,” spokesman Lambert Mende said. “It is an ultimatum from a fictitious group that has no real value to us.”
Everything escalated when Rwanda accused DR Congo of firing missiles into Rwanda which Congo denies. Goma is the the UN headquarters and a UN spokesman has said that they cannot confirm reports that DR Congo fired heavy weapons into Rwanda. Rwanda claims they will not respond for now and will consider their position later on. M23 say FARDC tried to retake Munigi and that they were firing back in defence.
Congo’s information minister, Lambert Mende,said that a mortar fired from Rwanda landed in Birere close to the airport in Goma and wounded at least five people. This was apparently a warning shot by Rwanda according to sources in Rwanda. Late this evening Goma Civil Protection claimed the shelling left 1 dead and 23 wounded including children and pregnant women. These figures are unconfirmed although the Panzi hospital also reported treating casualties.
Now Goma is in confusion and local sources say it is hard to tell what is going on. Gunfire in the centre of town earlier on has been attributed by FARDC to undisciplined soldiers and while there are reports of looting, the streets are apparently now quiet. There are some unconfirmed reports that Virunga Market, Majengo, Ndosho and parts of Centre Ville had been occupied but my very reliable sources say it is hard to tell who is in control right now. It is also highly possible that M23 have had ‘sleepers’ in town awaiting a situation like this. Destabilising a town before taking it is an old CNDP technique from the past. However, as night fell, FARDC tanks were sighted in position on some streets although as information is only very localised it is hard to say if they have all the town covered.
Either way at the moment it seems the airport, a key installation, remains secure with both MONUSCO and FARDC troops in position although it had earlier come under shelling by M23. Information Minister Lambert Mende said government forces are in complete control of of Goma, despite reports that M23 rebels were just a few kilometers outside the city. The UN says it has withdrawn non-essential staff but MONUSCO will remain in the city to protect civilians.
Heavy shelling and gunfire continues around the periphery of the town and a BBC journalist reports a thunderstorm just to add to the fear and tension of the residents. Thousands of people fleeing the fighting have descended on Goma and remain without shelter. The humanitarian needs are massive with 30,000 people who left Kanyaruchinya camp since yesterday and 4000 of them now sheltering in a single school according to one aid worker’s estimate. Local residents have reportedly taken some of the displaced into their homes.
In New York, Ambassador Rice is threatening further sanctions which seems a fairly useless response to the current situation. France is also trying to get the UN Security Council into urgent session. Considering the UN troops in Goma, which include an Indian battalion amongst others, it is clear that the situation in Goma is not motivating a clear international response. This seems to always be the case with the DR Congo.
20/11/2012 Fighting on the streets in some parts of Goma as the day breaks but although probably M23 this is not confirmed. There is also fighting around the airport which remains in FARDC hands. However, FARDC have been seen patrolling this morning and Reuters journalist Jonny Hogg reports the centre of town is calm.
My sources also say streets in their area calm but that ‘something’ has been going off on the streets in a several areas. Local civil society organisations are trying to set a communication network into action to counter rumours. AP’s Melanie Gouby reports that credible sources have told her of Rwandan infiltration into Congo.
Jason Stearns quotes FARDC commanders who say Rwandan RDF troops made it all the way to Birere yesterday and there was direct fighting between RDF and FARDC. He now says the UN have confirmed that the RDF entered Goma ‘briefly’. Obviously Rwanda denies this.