Rebel forces in resource-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo said they captured the city of Goma, amid fighting that aid workers said forced tens of thousands of people to flee.
"All of Goma is under the control" of the M23 rebels, including the airport, Lieutenant-Colonel Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the fighters, said in a phone interview today. A corridor is being created to allow members of the national army to leave Goma, he said. Army spokesman Col Olivier Hamuli didn't answer two calls to his mobile phone seeking comment.
Congolese president Joseph Kabila appealed for calm and said "all options are still on the table" regarding how the country will respond to the rebellion. His comments, broadcast on state television, were recorded before he left for Kampala, the capital of neighboring Uganda, the broadcaster said. The interviewers in the video weren't aware Goma had fallen.
M23 resumed fighting against government forces last week, ending an unofficial three-month cease-fire. The renegade group is composed of soldiers that deserted Congo's army in April and is headed by General Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on war-crimes charges. At stake in the eastern part of Congo bordering Rwanda and Uganda are deposits of tin ore, gold, tungsten and coltan, a mineral used in laptops and mobile phones.
UN rapporteurs have accused Rwanda of backing the rebels, an allegation Rwanda's government denies. On November 13, the UN imposed sanctions on M23 commander Colonel Sultani Makenga for violations of international law, including rape and the use of child soldiers. The council is planning more sanctions against leaders of the rebel group.
Congo and Rwanda have fought directly or by proxy since the late 1990s.
While Rwanda hasn't been directly implicated in the latest attacks, M23 forces appeared to be well-equipped and have supplies such as night-vision goggles that indicate they are getting outside assistance, according to UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous. Rwanda has rejected the findings of a UN group of experts monitoring an arms embargo on Congo. Their 44-page report said Rwandan officials have commanded the seven-month rebellion.
Escalating violence around Goma, which is the capital of Congo's North Kivu province, forced about 60,000 people to flee a displacement camp in eastern Congo in panic, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Geneva-based medical charity, said in an e- mailed statement.
The city, about 1,659 kilometres east of Kinshasa, is situated on the border with Rwanda at the northern edge of Lake Kivu. Historically, it has been the main transit point for minerals from the region.
"Strategically, it's very important," Koen Vlassenroot, the director of the Conflict Research Group at the University of Ghent in the Netherlands, said in a phone interview. "It's easier to control the territory they already have in the north and further south and west. Goma is also an important economic hub."
Accusations have flown that the violence has spilled over the borders. At least three people were injured and one person was killed yesterday when "weapons" were fired into Rwanda, Rwandan army spokesman Brigadier-General Joseph Nzabamwinta said by phone.
Congolese Communication Minister Lambert Mende said he wasn't aware of the incident in a phone interview yesterday from Kinshasa. UN spokesman Kieran Dwyer said reports of firing from Congo into Rwanda couldn't be confirmed.
Kazarama said the first M23 troops entered Goma last night.
"Our plan is to neutralise the government," he said.