GOMA, Congo - A rebel group believed to be backed by Rwanda seized the strategic, provincial capital of Goma in eastern Congo on Tuesday, home to more than 1 million people as well as an international airport in a development that threatens to spark a new, regional war, officials and witnesses said.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south.
Civilians ran down sidewalks looking for cover and children shouted in alarm. A man clutched a thermos as he ran.
A Congolese army tank overlooking Munigi and the road to Rutshuru where fighting between the M23 and the Congolese army has been taking place in the past days near Goma, Congo, Monday.
Thousands of residents fled across the border to Rwanda, the much-smaller nation to the east which is accused of funneling arms and recruits to the M23 rebels.
By early afternoon the gunfire had stopped and M23 soldiers marched down the potholed main boulevards, unimpeded. Their senior commanders, who the United Nations has accused of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, paraded around the town in all-terrain vehicles, waving to the thousands of people who left their barricaded houses to see them.
The United Nations peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who expressed frustration over the lack of action by the peacekeepers.
"MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions (at the airport). We ask that the MONUSCO do more," he said.
A U.N. spokesman said in New York said that the nearly 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle. The peacekeepers "cannot substitute for the efforts of national forces" in Congo, said spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that the mandate of the U.N. forces in Congo "must be reviewed." Speaking in Paris, he said it is "absurd" that the U.N. has 17,000 peacekeepers in all of Congo but they "couldn't stop several hundred men" in Goma.
The French minister also said a rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda was critical to solving the crisis. Fabius said he's been in touch with officials in both countries.