UNITED NATIONS, July 10 – The United Nations expressed new concern Tuesday that rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo are getting arms from other countries, as it sent reinforcements to a threatened city.
The UN Security Council is to discuss the new strife Tuesday while international leaders are to use an African Union summit in Addis Ababa this week to try to defuse tensions between Congo and Rwanda over the fighting.
“The UN mission is doing its utmost in coordination with the Congolese army to protect civilians,” Roger Meece, head of the UN mission in Congo, was quoted as saying by the UN spokesman.
Meece also “voiced his concern about continuing reports that M23 mutineers are receiving external support and are well-armed, trained and equipped,” the spokesman added.
The Congo government and a UN sanctions panel report have accused Rwanda of helping the the M23 fighters, who took one town on the Uganda border last week and forced 600 government troops to flee. There are growing fears that M23 may now target the provincial capital of Goma.
M23, a group of mutineers led by accused war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, has already briefly taken other towns near its new stronghold in Bunagana.
“It would be disastrous if Goma was taken,” said a UN official who gave details of the reinforcements. Goma, a city of more than 500,000 people, is also the center of the key minerals industry in the east of Congo.
The Congo government is moving a US-trained battalion from the north of the country to Goma, the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The battalion, previously used in the hunt for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters, will join about 7,000 troops already in Nord Kivu province, of which Goma is the capital.
The UN mission in DR Congo, known by the acronym MONUSCO, is moving troops and special forces from its 18,000-strong peacekeeping force to the city, said the UN official.
One Indian peacekeeper was killed last Friday as fighting intensified between the rebels and government forces.
M23 broke away from the government army in April complaining about conditions. In the past two weeks its numbers have grown from about 1,000 to 2,000 fighters, according to the UN official.
At the weekend, M23 took Rutshuru, which controls a key highway to Goma, and other smaller nearby towns. But they withdrew again on Monday without any apparent reason.
“Nobody knows what the intentions of the M23 are right now,” said the UN official. “Some have been seen going back along the road to Bunagana. Others are up fairly close to the small towns that they had taken.
“Our great concern is that the M23, having taken these towns, would then be planning some sort of advance against Goma.”
The army is poorly trained and equipped. Government troops “withdrew from a number of their former positions as the M23 advanced,” the UN official said.
The Congo government has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting M23. Rwanda has strongly denied the claims though a recent report by a panel of UN sanctions experts said fighters and weapons used by M23 have come from Rwanda.
The UN is also concerned that M23 is trying to form alliances with other rebel groups in the region.
Alongside the reinforcements, the UN will seek to press diplomatic means to defuse the crisis at the AU summit this week. The International Conference of the Great Lakes Region — which includes DR Congo and Rwanda — is to be held on Thursday focusing on the new troubles.
Security Council powers are also trying to get countries with influence over DR Congo and Rwanda to bring them back from the brink of a showdown, diplomats said ahead of Tuesday’s council meeting.