SAKE, DR Congo, Nov 23 – Thousands of civilians poured out of the town of Sake in the eastern DR Congo on Friday in the face of a rebel advance that has raised fears of wider conflict erupting in the chronically unstable region.
An AFP photographer saw at least one body in the centre of the town, which fell to the rebels Wednesday, while the local head of a relief agency reported numerous casualties.
“There are bodies lining the road” leading south from Sake, Thierry Goffeau, the head of the Goma chapter of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told AFP, without providing specific figures.
The M23 rebels earlier in the week captured Goma, a regional capital in the mineral-rich Kivu region, where the two wars that shook the country beginning in 1996 started.
The rebels’ lightning advance has displaced tens of thousands of people and has raised warnings of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in the underdeveloped area.
On Friday, thousands of residents fled Sake on foot heading east toward Goma some 30 kilometres (19 miles) away, where tens of thousands of people are estimated to already be sheltering in camps.
A UN source said that the army and an allied local militia had managed to stop the rebel advance some 10 kilometres south of Sake, but this information could not be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile the European Union added its voice to the international chorus demanding that the rebels stop their advance, “starting with the immediate stop of the M23 offensive and its retreat from Goma.”
The rebels have refused to withdraw from Goma unless President Laurent Kabila agrees to peace talks.
The United Nations and other humanitarian groups have reported killings, abductions, looting and extortion of civilians in the face of their advance.
In the capital Kinshasa some 1,500 kilometres west of the troubled Kivu region, several thousand women marched down the city’s main boulevard to protest against the violence.
“Peace throughout the country,” read the signs carried by the demonstrators, who included Justice Minister Wivine Mumba Matipa and several lawmakers.