, GOMA, DR Congo, Nov 18 – UN combat helicopters fired on rebels advancing on the key eastern DR Congo city of Goma on Sunday, as government troops and top local officials reportedly joined fleeing civilians and the international community voiced deep concern about the fighting.
The M23 rebels, army mutineers whose uprising in April unleashed fresh unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s chronically unstable east, halted their advance just outside Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich region.
Fighting was reported around the airport and the rebels warned they would seize the city if they came under attack from the army, which said it was trying to avoid a “bloodbath” in the area.
“If the FARDC (government forces) attack us, we will take the city,” Innocent Kayina, M23 operations commander for the area, told AFP.
A UN peacekeeping spokesman said in New York that UN attack helicopters had fired cannons and rockets at the rebels but could not stop their advance and that they were now near Goma airport.
UN forces have supported government troops in the region “including carrying out sorties and firing from four attack helicopter missions that have fired rockets and cannon rounds,” spokesman Kieran Dwyer told AFP, after similar action on Saturday.
Fighting resumed on Thursday, just two days after the United Nations and the United States imposed sanctions on the leader of the M23 group. The rebels are ethnic Tutsi former soldiers who launched a mutiny in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal.
The EU joined the UN in calling on the rebels to halt their advance, with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voicing “great concern” about the developments in the area.
“I call on the M23 to immediately stop the military offensive against the city of Goma. Any support to the M23 in violation of the sanctions regime and the arms embargo must stop,” she said in a statement.
UN experts have said Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, a charge fiercely denied by both countries.
A UN source on the ground said government troops and local officials were fleeing Goma. A Western military source said the airport had been closed and that hundreds of people had fled.
“We are in a state of panic. It seems that the rebels are pushing back our soldiers,” said local taxi driver Gabriel. “In the city itself, the shops are closed.”
The vice governor for the region told AFP there had been “no major incidents” or gunfire in Goma but that the army had decided to withdraw.
Olivier Hamuli, an army spokesman in North Kivu province, told local radio there had been “rough” fighting around the airport.
“Our concern is to avoid a bloodbath in the city,” he said.
Earlier Sunday, an army intelligence colonel told AFP on condition of anonymity that fighting had reached a displaced people’s camp in Kanyarucinya, some 10 kilometres (six miles) from Goma.
“All the displaced have left the camp and are apparently now in the city of Goma,” he said.
“We are trying to defend ourselves. We have hope in the new troops which are starting to arrive from Bukavu,” the capital of the neighbouring province of South Kivu, he said.
The M23 denied its forces had reached the camp which hosts between 60,000 and 80,000 people, many of them women and children, according to the United Nations.
When fighting resumed on Thursday after a three-month truce, more than 7,000 people returned to the camp.