GOMA, November 4 – Rebels in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo accused the government of declaring "war on its people" by refusing to negotiate in a conflict that has driven more than a million people from their homes.
As the city of Goma, besieged by rebels, went under a night curfew Tuesday, calls were growing to add muscle to the UN peacekeeping mission to protect civilians trapped in the fighting in strife-torn Nord-Kivu province.
Last week, the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, routed government forces around the provincial capital of Goma, provoking a mass exodus of civilians.
The flare-up disrupted humanitarian aid distribution and the first aid for a week was delivered on Monday to the rebel-held town of Rutshuru, north of here.
Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said the Kinshasa government "confirmed its militarist position" by refusing the parliament’s recommendation of direct dialogue with the CNDP, which has held a unilateral ceasefire since Wednesday.
"It is an act of sabotage," Bisimwa told AFP. "The government has just launched the war on its people."
Nkunda has threatened to oust the government in Kinshasa unless it holds "direct" talks on his demands.
The renegade general says he is protecting fellow Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who infiltrated eastern Democratic Republic of Congo following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The government, which has accused Rwanda of backing Nkunda, has refused to hold direct talks with the CNDP, saying it wanted dialogue with all the armed groups in the Kivu region and not just the CNDP.
"There are no small and large armed groups," government spokesman Lambert Mende said. "The act of creating a humanitarian disaster does not give special rights."
Last week’s rebel offensive displaced 100,000 civilians, including 60,000 children, UN children’s agency UNICEF said.
"Around 250,000 people are now believed to have been displaced in the last two months, bringing the total number of internally displaced to around one million, 20 percent of the entire North Kivu population," UNICEF said in a statement.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who toured Congo at the weekend and met with regional leaders, said the 17,000-strong UN mission (MONUC) needs new soldiers and tougher rules of engagement to tackle the violence.
"There are entire brigades that are unable to engage in defensive, let alone offensive, action, because their rules of engagement are insufficient or they are very restrictive," Kouchner said in France.
Congolese Foreign Minister Alexis Tambwe Muamba called on the UN Security Council to "redefine" MONUC’s mission to allow the force to "lead more muscular operations" againt the rebels.
The European Union’s most senior military figure, British General David Leakey, warned however that there was little appetite among member states for any intervention in Congo, as has been mooted.
During a visit to Goma, UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said MONUC would "do the maximum" to protect civilians in the city, which authorities placed under an 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) Monday to 5:00 am (0300 GMT) Tuesday curfew.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon appointed Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo as his special envoy to defuse the crisis.
As arguments about the UN force’s effectiveness raged on, an aid convoy allowed into rebel-held territory under UN escort found three camps in the Rutshuru area empty.
It was the first time aid agencies had been able to reach Rutshuru since the UN last week said that 50,000 people disappeared after "credible reports" that rebels had looted and burned camps around the town.
"We would have expected a population of 11,000 people, but all the camps are empty," said Sean Rafferty of British charity Merlin.
"The camps were completely levelled. None of the materials were there. We are very concerned about the welfare of those people."