Congo rebels take army base; fighting escalates

Sanders is a Times staff writer.

Rebels overran an army base and seized the headquarters of a nearby gorilla park in intensified fighting Sunday in northeastern Congo.

Since August, nearly 200,000 more people have been driven from their homes by fighting in a region where more than 1.4 million, or about one-fifth of the population, already have been displaced, aid officials say.

“It’s significantly worse in that rebels seem to have gained a lot of ground,” said Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park, home to 200 of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas.


Although parts of the park have been under rebel control for months, Sunday’s clashes forced 53 park rangers to flee into the forest as the fighters seized the headquarters, atop a strategic bluff.

Rebels also retook control of the Rumangabo military camp north of the city of Goma. Rebels had overrun the camp this month, stealing a cache of heavy artillery and antiaircraft guns before turning control of the facility over to the United Nations.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, the largest in the world with more than 17,000 troops, dispatched soldiers Sunday along major roads to protect and assist fleeing residents. But heavy fighting continued throughout the afternoon.

Rebel commanders announced on local radio Sunday morning that the offensive was in response to government harassment in a disputed region nearby. U.N. officials questioned the rebels’ claim.

“We can deny that because we are there and haven’t seen any fighting,” said U.N. spokesman Michel Bonnardeaux in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was formerly known as Zaire.

The nation’s restive northeast was the epicenter of a five-year cross-border conflict that ended early this decade after more than 5 million people died, mostly from disease and starvation. The area’s rich natural resources, including gold, have long attracted the interest of neighboring countries, including Rwanda and Uganda.


A peace treaty in 2003 and a U.N.-monitored presidential election in 2006 have failed to end the turmoil in the northeast, where militias and armed ethnic groups are vying for control. Over the last year, members of Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army have also settled in the region, kidnapping children to use as soldiers.

The biggest threat has come from Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. He signed a peace treaty in January with the government of President Joseph Kabila, but each side has accused the other of violating the terms.

Nkunda says he is protecting the ethnic Tutsi minority from rival Hutu militias that crossed the border into Congo from Rwanda after carrying out the 1994 genocide. The Tutsi-led government of Rwanda has been accused of supporting Nkunda.

In August, Nkunda, a colorful, charismatic leader, escalated his rhetoric, vowing to overthrow the government.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council condemned his remarks and called for all parties in the conflict to respect a cease-fire.