GOMA, November 14 – Rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo swept to the outskirts of a strategic crossroads town Thursday where hundreds of government troops and UN peacekeepers stood in their way.,
"We are at the entrance of Kanyabayonga," Bertrand Bisimwa, spokesman for the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) led by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, told AFP by telephone.
Two independent sources said the rebels, as of Wednesday night, had advanced to about 10 kilometres south of the town, which is around 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the Nord-Kivu capital Goma.
Peacekeepers with the UN Mission in the DR Congo (MONUC) and FARDC government forces had "reinforced their positions at Kanyabayonga," MONUC’s military spokesman Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
"As far as the FARDC are concerned, we’re talking about several hundred men," said Dietrich, adding that the government army was "consolidating its command structure."
Government soldiers went on a looting rampage in Kanyaboyanga and surrounding towns earlier this week, apparently unhappy after being ordered to fall back from positions nearer the front line.
A government spokesman said soldiers responsible for looting and brutality against the local population would be punished.
Dietrich confirmed that FARDC forces had "begun to arrest looters" but said there "were still some problems" Wednesday.
The rebels said they had advanced on the town without a fight, as government troops had fled.
"The situation is calm," Bisimwa said. "We can see that the adversary is still fleeing."
Kanyabayonga is the meeting point of main roads in Nord-Kivu, making it a point of control over the north of the conflict-stricken province.
The rebels commanded by renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda already control Mirangi village, the last community on the way into Kanyabayonga, one of the independent sources said.
For the past two weeks, the rebels have been surrounding Goma, eastern DR Congo’s main city, forcing the UN peacekeepers to send reinforcements to protect the city and its population of an estimated half a million.
Amid fears the conflict could spill over into neighbouring countries, the African Union’s Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra will hold talks with the presidents of DR Congo and Rwanda over the next two days.
Lamamra will meet in Kinshasa with DR Congo President Joseph Kabila and Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito as well as MONUC chief Alan Doss on Friday.
He will then move on to Kigali to meet Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali on Saturday, said the AU spokesman in Kinshasa, Traore Brehima.
Around 2,000 people have fled into Uganda since Tuesday, bringing to 12,000 the number of people who have taken refuge in the neighbouring country since fighting erupted in late August, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
And around 20,000 people currently living in the Kibati camp, just north of Goma, would be relocated "as soon as possible" for security reasons, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told AFP.
"Kibati is a disaster. You can’t have people there, so close to the front line," said David Nthengwe, a spokesman for the UN agency in Goma.
"The military are always going through the camp, in and out, and knowing the behaviour of the army, anything can happen."
There have also been reports of drunk soldiers disturbing the camp’s population, as well as looting.
"I think probably 90 percent of them will want to move," he said. "Some will not move because they will fear they are being moved further away from their homes. So that will be a factor to consider."
The country’s Roman Catholic archbishops said the fighting had reached "untenable levels" and threatens to "destablise the whole sub-region," while "a real humanitarian tragedy" was unfolding in North-Kivu.