Rebel move on Congo city threatens fragile peace

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The Independent Online

Renegade rebels marched towards the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu yesterday, plunging the region into a fresh round of chaos and threatening the Democratic Republic of Congo's fragile peace process.

Renegade rebels marched towards the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu yesterday, plunging the region into a fresh round of chaos and threatening the Democratic Republic of Congo's fragile peace process.

About 1,000 soldiers loyal to Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda had established positions on a lakeside road about 18 miles north of the city, said Sébastien Lapierre, a United Nations spokesman in Bukavu.

Brig-Gen Nkunda earlier pushed Congolese army soldiers passed Kavumu airport, four miles to the north, but left a large UN peace-keeping contingent in charge of the airstrip.

The sudden advance led to alarm in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, where calm had just been restored following three days of fighting last week that claimed more than 27 lives, including one UN peace-keeper. Yesterday the UN evacuated all non-essential staff from Bukavu. About 2,000 Congolese refugees had already fled across the border into neighbouring Rwanda.

"The UN is now concentrating on opening dialogue, with Nkunda as well as the transitional government, to stop the advance and to prevent further fighting," said Mr Lapierre.

Another UN official, speaking by telephone from the city, described the situation as "chaotic and confused", adding that "nobody is sure what's really happening". The violent outbreak is the latest blow to a peace deal supposed to end a six-year war that has caused more than 3.5 million deaths, mostly from disease and starvation.

The renegade fighters hail from the Congolese Rally For Democracy (RCD), the main rebel group that signed a power-sharing agreement with the government of Joseph Kabila, the President, last June. But some RCD military officers have been openly hostile towards the deal.

In an interview with The Independent last November, Brig- Gen Nkunda said that his Banyamulenge ethnic group had been "marginalised" by the peace deal and "betrayed" by their political leaders.

He warned that the rising tensions could "blow" if not acted upon. "All of us will be in a position of fighting," he said.

Those threats were realised when troops loyal to another Banyamulenge commander, Colonel Jules Mutebusi, mutinied against the Congolese army in Bukavu last Wednesday. Three days of heavy fighting ensued, fuelled by hidden stockpiles of weapons and ammunition around the lakeside city. Shops were looted and several rapes were reported. At least 27 people died.

UN peace-keepers restored calm by opening fire on the belligerents, and by Sunday night had established a front line down the main street and shepherded the rebel soldiers back to barracks. Last night the city was again under threat. UN sources said they believed the Congolese army had been weakened by defections. Efforts by the transitional government to negotiate its way out of the crisis were also hampered.

President Kabila sent a high-level delegation from Kinshasa - including Azarias Ruberwa, the Vice-President and former RCD leader - to the eastern capital, Goma. But as soon as the team's plane landed, they were put under UN guard following reports - subsequently proved false - that rebels had surrounded the airport.

"The government delegation ... decided they didn't feel secure any more," said Jacqueline Chénard, a UN spokeswoman. They are due to travel to Bukavu by helicopter today.

The turbulence underscores the risks run by the 10,800 UN peace-keeping mission in eastern Congo, where a dangerous power vacuum exists.Hutu militiamen terrorise villagers; other armed groups have yet to be demobilised; and the formation of a national army appears in greater jeopardy than ever.

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