Refugees escape Tutsi rebels in Congo

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The Independent Online

Furious mobs stoned UN peacekeepers' compounds yesterday and thousands of desperate people fled advancing rebel troops as chaos returned to eastern Congo, fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars.

UN spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said later in the day UN peacekeepers in helicopters fired at rebel forces surging on Kibumba, about 28 miles north of the provincial capital of Goma.

In what appeared to be a major retreat, hundreds of government soldiers pulled back from the battlefront north of Goma — fleeing any way possible, including using tanks, jeeps and commandeered cars. Soldiers honked their horns angrily as they struggled to push through throngs of displaced people on the main road.

Crowds of protesters threw rocks outside four UN compounds in Goma, venting outrage at what they claimed was a failure to protect them from rebels.

The UN said the commander of the embattled Congo peacekeeping force resigned yesterday after just a month. And Congo's president appointed a new Cabinet including a new defense minister and charged it with being "a combat government to re-establish peace."

Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the UN Security Council for him to respect a cease fire brokered by the UN in January. Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.

Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa told The Associated Press that rebel fighters were within seven miles of Goma. Residents of Katindo, a neighborhood three miles from downtown Goma, told the AP they heard bombs exploding late Monday afternoon.

Tens of thousands of civilians abandoned their homes ahead of the rebel advance. By nightfall, women and children lay down on roadsides made muddy by tropical downpours, stretching out to try to sleep. Some had mats or plastic sheets; others simply dropped, exhausted, to the earth.

The civilians and soldiers were surging south from a major army base seized by the rebels on Sunday. As the crowds reached Goma, soldiers blocked access to the northern entrance, apparently fearing that rebels could be trying to infiltrate with the displaced civilians.