Two killed as furious mobs protest at UN failure to stop Congo rebels

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Furious anti-United Nations protests exploded across the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday, plunging the peacekeeping mission deeper into crisis and delivering a buffeting the vast country's fragile hopes for peace.

Furious anti-United Nations protests exploded across the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday, plunging the peacekeeping mission deeper into crisis and delivering a buffeting the vast country's fragile hopes for peace.

Angry crowds surged through the capital, Kinshasa, burning cars, flinging stones and besieging UN buildings in protest at the peace-keepers' failure to prevent the eastern city of Bukavu falling to dissident rebels on Tuesday.

UN peace-keepers shot dead two people after a mob stormed a UN warehouse; a spokesman said they opened fire in "legitimate self-defence". Elsewhere in the smoke-shrouded city, tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the UN headquarters.

"It's like in the movies. They're burning tyres and the police are firing in the air and shooting tear gas. It's crazy out there," one UN staffer trapped inside the building told reporters by phone.

UN offices were attacked and looted in the southern cities of Kindu and Lubumbashi, where the peace-keepers sought refuge in a government barracks. Armoured vehicles were deployed in the diamond trading centre, Kisangani, to prevent crowds storming the UN compound.

"The state is dead!" chanted one mob that ran through Kinshasa after daylight. "We will punish [UN forces] ourselves!" Other protestors demanded the resignation of William Swing, the head of the United Nations Organisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known locally by its French acronym: Monuc.

In contrast, relative calm reigned in Bukavu, the lakeside city at the centre of the storm, where renegade leader Brigadier General Laurent Nkunda pledged to start withdrawing his troops to positions outside the city. General Nkunda and a second dissident commander, Colonel Jules Mutebutsi, said they wrenched Bukavu from government control to prevent a "genocide" of their fellow Banyamulenge tribesmen.

However, yesterday their troops seemed more interested in mass looting and rape. Dissident soldiers emptied warehouses, robbed families at gunpoint and casually herded stolen cattle down the main street. Looters stole 300 tons of food aid from the World Food Programme from transport barges moored on Lake Kivu.

Hundreds of terrified people crammed into the UN compound, many fleeing sexual attacks. A UN spokesman, Sebastien Lapierre, said that "in several areas of the city, many cases of rape and widespread looting by dissident forces of General Nkunda and Colonel Mutebutsi have been reported". An estimated 65 people have died and more than 100 wounded since hostilities erupted nine days ago. At least half of the dead are civilians, according to the International Red Cross.

Bukavu residents who dared to venture outdoors yesterday displayed naked hostility towards the UN mission, which they blamed for failing to prevent the Nkunda advance. Some stoned UN vehicles.

"We thought Monuc had come here to protect us. But what is the point of being here if they do nothing?" said Antoine, a trader who declined to give his full name.

At the deserted governor's mansion overlooking Lake Kivu, General Nkunda promised to withdraw his troops immediately and leave the city under UN control.

However he would only make peace with the Congolese army - which he claimed to still be part of - if the "genocide" of the Banyamulenge in Bukavu was stopped.

General Nkunda's fears of a massacre were based on the death of 27 Banyamulenge in Bukavu over the past week, he said. But the US state department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said the claims were "irresponsible and unnecessarily inflammatory".

General Nkunda denied his troops were involved in widespread looting, and said that all cases of theft would be investigated.

In Kinshasa, President Joseph Kabila used belligerent language to condemn both the UN and neighbouring Rwanda, raising the political temperature and sparking fears of Congo's third major war in less than 10 years.

Rwanda, which started the 1996 and 1998 wars, was behind the attacks on Bukavu, he said. "Once again Rwanda has made it clear it does not want peace," he told the BBC. "If war is imposed on us we will most definitely fight back."

Rwanda's Foreign Minister Charles Muligande denied the accusation. The UN spokesman in Bukavu said: "We've had reports of [Rwanda troops movements in Congo] but for now we cannot confirm them". Some UN military observers also reported seeing UN military aircraft in Congolese airspace, west of Bukavu.

As South African and Uruguayan peace-keepers started patrolling the streets of Bukavu last night, the UN mission was tumbling into disarray. Some UN officials blamed the lack of resources and lack of political will from the international community for the swelling fiasco, and recriminations have already started.

"Quite frankly this [chaos] was coming for a long time. Nobody was willing to take the hard decisions to prevent it. It's no surprise to us at all," said one official in Bukavu.