As violence flares in Congo, civilians stone U.N. bases
One person was killed Monday after hundreds of angry civilians stoned U.N. peacekeeping bases in northeastern Congo, blaming the international troops for failing to stem violence in the rebellion-plagued region.
Protesters, many of them children, descended upon several U.N. compounds in the city of Goma, spurring U.N. soldiers at one facility to fire into the air to disperse the crowds, said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg.
She said it was unclear whether the civilian was killed by a falling rock or a bullet.
“We were assaulted by a rain of stones,” she said. “We understand perfectly the frustration of the population. We understand they are panicking. But the violence of this morning was unacceptable.”
U.N. officials, who oversee a 17,000-soldier peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, met Monday with local leaders in an attempt to calm the situation.
In a statement released Monday by U.N. headquarters in New York, the newly appointed force commander for Congo, Lt. Gen. Vicente Diaz de Villegas y Herreria, announced he would resign. It was unclear whether the resignation was related to the recent fighting between Congolese troops and rebel militias. Officials cited “personal reasons” for the decision.
Frightened residents say the peacekeeping force, the largest U.N. deployment in the world, has done little to stop the fighting.
Joseph Mukulima, 42, a pastor in Goma and father of six, said U.N. officials appear to lack the resolve to end the conflict.
“It’s not in their interest, because if there is no [fighting] then they won’t have a job,” he said. “What’s going to happen will happen and [the U.N.] presence won’t change anything. It’s better if they just leave.”
Monday’s stoning attack followed a similar incident last week in which a U.N. commander driving back to camp was hit in the face with a rock.
Tensions have been rising as fighting intensifies between government troops and rebels loyal to Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who leads a large, well-armed militia that has vowed to overthrow the government.
On Sunday, rebels overran a Congolese army base north of Goma, sending thousands of civilians fleeing toward the city. Skirmishes continued Monday, officials said, reaching to within 10 miles of Goma.
U.N. helicopters attacked rebel positions in the village of Kibumba after fighters ignored warning shots and continued their advance, officials said. Casualties among the rebels could not be determined.
Elsewhere rebels began moving toward giant displacement camps around the edge of the city, forcing families that had already fled their homes to pick up and run again.
Government soldiers were seen retreating from the area, raising fears that Nkunda might attempt to seize control of Goma. His forces attacked the city last year, but were rebuffed by U.N. troops.
U.N. officials are calling on Nkunda’s forces to respect a January cease-fire agreement and abandon the government military base. Nkunda has accused the government of starting the recent conflict by harassing his troops.
When U.N. forces tried to investigate Sunday’s attacks, Nkunda’s forces fired on them, forcing the U.N. soldiers to retreat, Van den Wildenberg said.
“That left the population with the perception that we left them and didn’t do anything to protect them,” she said.
Special correspondent Fidel Bafilemba in Goma contributed to this report.