The Congolese rebel group M23 seized the airport in the regional capital of Goma, a stretegic city in eastern Congo, UN officials reported on Tuesday. The rebels’ advance threatens to drag the DR Congo back into war.
DR Congo rebels have seized the airport in Goma, the main city in the country’s mineral-rich east after several days of fighting, a United Nations official told reporters Tuesday.
“The airport is under the control of the M23,” the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the rebel group.
It is unclear whether there were any casualties in the attack.
The capture of the airport comes a day after rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda, sid they were halting their advance on Goma to enter into peace talks with the government.
But government spokesman Lambert Mende told The Associated Press by phone that negotiations are out of the question, saying Congo will not give in to the “blackmail” of a Rwandan-backed group.
“We refuse to enter into negotiations with M23. Because it’s Rwanda, not the M23, that is responsible,” said Mende. “If Goma falls, it’s going to create a whole other set of problems. We refuse systematically to speak to them (M23). Because if we do, it would be a way to wash away Rwanda’s responsibility.”
Congo and Rwanda have already fought two wars, the most recent of which ended in 2003 after lasting nearly six years. On Monday, both nations accused the other of firing mortars across the narrow border which runs on one side of Goma, a city of 1 million which is the economic heart of Congo’s mineral rich region.
Rwandan military spokesman Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita said that Congolese shells had fallen on the Rwandan side, while Mende said that a mortar fired from Rwanda landed in the Birere neighborhood near the airport in Goma and wounded at least five people.
As tanks rumbled by, civilians including young children could be seen running to safety, seeking shelter in huts and behind ledges along the road where the two sides were battling.
Earlier, M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama told the AP that his men were on their way back to Kibumba, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north in order to give proposed talks a chance. But on Monday afternoon, Kazarama blamed Congo for renewed hostilities and once again vowed that M23 would take Goma.
“The army provoked us. They have fired on our men … We are going to take Goma tonight,” he said.
On Saturday, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said the rebels are very well-equipped, including with night-vision equipment allowing them to fight at night.
The new equipment, including the goggles as well as 120 mm mortars, are being provided by Rwanda, which also sent several battalions of fighters, according to the International Crisis Group.
“The situation in Goma is extremely tense,” said U.N. spokesman Kieran Dwyer in a statement Sunday. “There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23’s hands and/or be seriously destabilized as a result of the fighting.”
At U.N. Headquarters in New York on Monday, French Ambassador Girard Araud said he would be introducing a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the M23 rebel leadership.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)