GOMA, October 31 – Rebel troops were poised outside the Congolese city of Goma Friday as the European Union mulled sending troops to the strife-torn region to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Tutsi rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose forces are threatening to grab the strategic eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city, offered Thursday to open humanitarian corridors for tens of thousands of civilians displaced by combat.
Only 850 United Nations peacekeepers stand between Goma and Nkunda’s forces, who have said they will not shirk a fight for the city if necessary, after government troops fled as the rebels closed in on the city on Wednesday.
Nkunda, who has declared a unilateral ceasefire, vowed in a letter to the United Nations mission in Kinshasa to allow "humanitarian organisations access to those in need who are behind our lines."
UN forces’ commander Colonel Samba Tall said the ceasefire called by Nkunda on Wednesday was holding, and said his MONUC force was respecting its mandate, under which it could engage the rebels if necessary to protect civilians.
But Nkunda warned UN forces blocking the way to Goma that they would open fire if the UN tried to halt their advance.
"We cannot engage them, but if they shoot at us, they are soldiers, we will have to defend ourselves," he told AFP.
In Brussels, EU diplomats were scheduled to discuss Friday whether to deploy troops to the region after aid agencies warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.
France has suggested the deployment of up to 1,500 soldiers who would provide technical and humanitarian support to the UN force (MONUC).
Britain voiced caution, however.
Africa minister Mark Malloch-Brown said he had spoken to the UN’s special representative on the crisis, Alan Doss, who had "renewed his request for troops."
"I told him we first had to see how the political situation was going to shape up and whether or not this ceasefire would hold. Our first priority is a political process backed by adequate humanitarian process," he said.
Nkunda said the European force would be useless but that he would not oppose it as long as its mission was to "support peace."
In Goma, where shops, schools and offices were closed, witnesses said out-of-control remnants of the Congolese army, many of them drunk, had committed murder.
An AFP reporter was shown the bodies of seven civilians, including two women. All were killed overnight by Congolese soldiers on a looting binge, said landlord Joseph Ndakola.
"Soldiers burst in here in the evening and stayed until four o’clock in the morning," he said. "They looted all my tenants’ belongings, making them carry their things to their vehicles, and then they came back in to murder them."
There were also reports from local residents that two women had been raped overnight on the outskirts of Goma in an area called Mosho.
Nkunda’s forces and the army resumed fighting in August, breaking a ceasefire agreement signed in Goma in January.
The Tutsi rebels say they are defending the inhabitants of Nord-Kivu province against atrocities committed by Congolese forces and an allied Rwandan Hutu rebel group — the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
The DR Congo government, for its part, charges that Rwanda is backing Nkunda’s rebellion.
Nkunda’s forces have captured several key towns in eastern DR Congo, sparking a mass exodus from the countryside and risking what UN chief Ban Ki-moon called a humanitarian crisis of "catastrophic dimensions."
Aid agencies said at least 30,000 internal refugees were trapped between the rebels and UN forces blocking their access to Goma.
Around 8,000 people have crossed into Uganda, while about 1,200 people have entered Rwanda.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) described the situation as "catastrophic," while Human Rights Watch called on international leaders to respond before it was too late.