Rebels in eastern Congo pushed south along Lake Kivu yesterday after repelling a counterattack by government forces near the new rebel stronghold in the city of Goma on the Rwandan border.

Others moved north from the strategic road junction at Sake.

The rebels were in control of Sake after a battle on Thursday that was the first sign of a government fightback. The army had abandoned Goma on Tuesday to the M23 movement, widely thought to be backed by Rwanda.

Local people and fighters said Congolese troops and allied militia had pulled back from Sake – which lies 20km west from Goma along the lake – to Minova, 15km farther south along the main highway in the direction of M23’s stated next objective, the city of Bukavu at the southern tip of the lake.

The rebel group said after taking Goma it would march on the capital, Kinshasa, 1,600km away, to defeat President Joseph Kabila. The fighters met no resistance as they probed several miles south from Sake yesterday.

Thousands of refugees fled the fighting, heading for Goma, where aid agencies have a significant presence. United Nations peacekeepers stood back when the rebels moved in. Another town, Mushaki, in the hills 20km to the northwest of Sake, also fell to the rebels after overnight fighting, according to officials in Goma who were in touch with people in the area.

Previous uprisings in Democratic Republic of Congo, among them one led by Mr Kabila’s father, have been launched from the area, where a mix of colonial-era borders, rich mineral deposits and ethnic rivalries has caused two decades of turmoil, dating from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, that have cost millions of deaths.

On the outskirts of Sake, taken by the rebels on Wednesday, three bodies in the uniform of Mr Kabila’s national army lay by the roadside. Cartridges cases littered the area.

“There was heavy fighting,” said pastor Jean Kambale, who dismissed a government claim that it had retaken Sake on Thursday. “It’s M23 who control the town,” he said. “They never lost it.”

Mixed welcome

The rebels received a mixed welcome in areas taken this week. Fearing more fighting, thousands of people clutching children and belongings were on the move around the lake yesterday, trudging along the road towards Goma from Sake.

M23 was formed in April by army mutineers who accused Mr Kabila of reneging on a peace deal from an earlier conflict. It says it plans to “liberate” the country and has rejected a call from regional states to withdraw from Goma.

The conflict has raised tensions between Congo and its tiny but militarily powerful neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa, backed by UN experts, accuses of secretly backing rebels.

Rwanda’s history of meddling

Rwanda has a history of meddling in Congo’s conflicts, which have resulted in the death of some five million people since 1998. Rwandan president Paul Kagame has denied the charge repeatedly and blames Congo and world powers of seeking a scapegoat for their failure.

Minova was the Congolese army’s rallying point after its retreat from Goma, according to the rebels. Having fended off the counterattack on Sake, they would take a step towards fulfilling their stated ambition of taking Bukavu by seizing Minova.

The capital of South Kivu province, Minova lies at the opposite end of Lake Kivu, 100km from Goma, the capital of North Kivu. Mr Kabila’s forces are on the back foot as the M23 fighters press south. Analysts remain sceptical, however, that the rebels can make good on their threat to march on Kinshasa in the west without significant and overt support from foreign backers. In pushing north from Sake, the insurgents moved closer to Kichanga, home of Bosco Ntaganda, a Rwandan-born warlord wanted for war crimes by the international court at The Hague. According to many observers, Ntaganda is controlling the insurgency.

Competition for resources

Regional and international leaders are scrambling to halt the latest bout of violence in a Great Lakes region long been plagued by ethnic and political conflict fuelled by competition for reserves of gold, tin and coltan, an ore of rare metals used in electronics and other high-value products. The rebels have so far ignored international calls to withdraw from occupied areas. They doubt Mr Kabila’s stated readiness to look into their complaints, saying they have already waited months for talks.

Regional leaders are due to hold crisis talks today in Kampala, capital of neighbouring Uganda.

A Congolese government spokesman confirmed Mr Kabila was back in Kinshasa following inconclusive talks with Mr Kagame this week. The spokesman said Mr Kabila would return to Uganda today. – (Reuters)


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