Cease-fire brings calm in Congo

Rebel leader calls for direct talks with government

October 31, 2008|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,Los Angeles Times

GOMA, Congo -

An uneasy calm returned to this battered Congolese city yesterday as a tenuous cease-fire halted clashes and residents struggled to resume their regular lives.

Many of the thousands of panicked people who fled regional displacement camps a day earlier and stormed into Goma, a city in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, began traveling back to nearby camps.

In contrast to Wednesday's stampede, when people feared rebels were in hot pursuit, the return trip was a somber procession, with weary people of all ages carrying mattresses, blankets and wood kindling toward an uncertain future.

With a cease-fire appearing to halt most fighting, rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said yesterdaythat he wanted direct talks with the Congo government. Envoys from the United States and the United Nations were sent in to help set up negotiations.

"We want peace for people in the region," rebel leader Laurent Nkunda said in a telephone interview after halting his advance on Goma and calling a unilateral cease-fire.

Nkunda also wanted to discuss his objections to a $9 billion-dollar deal giving China access to mineral riches in exchange for a railway and highway.

He also wants the urgent disarmament of a Rwandan Hutu militia that he says works with the government and preys on his minority Tutsi people.

"It's not acceptable for government soldiers to be fighting alongside genociders," Nkunda said.

Nkunda launched a low-level rebellion three years ago claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the Tutsi. Despite agreeing in January to a U.N.-brokered cease-fire, he resumed fighting in August.

He alleges the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter half a million Rwandan Tutsis in 1994's genocide.

Congo has charged Nkunda himself with involvement in war crimes, and Human Rights Watch says it has documented summary executions, torture and rape committed by soldiers under Nkunda's command in 2002 and 2004.

Rights groups have also criticized government forces for atrocities and widespread looting.

Rather than food and security in the city, refugees found more suffering. Congolese soldiers, who are notoriously ill-trained and underpaid, spent much of the night looting shops, firing weapons, raping women and harassing displaced families.

At least 10 people were shot to death and seven people were wounded, U.N. officials said.

"We found no help in the city and had to sleep outside on the ground," said Ntibarikure Nzabandora, 22, a father of two who was leading his family back to a displacement camp on the outskirts of Goma. "We might as well go back. At least maybe we will find some food."

A doctor at a Goma hospital said several of the dozen gunshot victims he treated yesterday had to wait several hours before getting medical attention because they feared venturing out into the streets, where gunfire rang out until past 2 a.m.

U.N. peacekeeping soldiers cannot promise to protect civilians in the region, said Kevin Kennedy, a spokesman for the U.N. operation in Congo, which includes a 17,000-member peacekeeping force.

Kennedy said that the United Nations is redeploying peacekeepers to the area but that the current 850 troops patrolling Goma were no match for the chaos experienced in the region this week, including Congolese soldiers "running amok."

Soldiers knocked at the door of Jacques Kalisa in the middle of the night.

"Soldiers said they just wanted some food and rest, but once inside they changed their story and said they needed money," the Goma resident said. When he said the family had no money, Kalisa said soldiers killed his brother and shot two other family members.

By daylight, the city struggled to return to normalcy after a cease-fire called by rebels Wednesday. Some soldiers continued their retreat out of Goma, while others remained. Pedestrians clogged the streets by late afternoon.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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