With the world focused on the conflict in Gaza and President Obama’s trip to Asia, rebel forces taking a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has received little attention. Members of the M23 group on Tuesday seized control of the border-town of Goma, a city of a little over one million inhabitants, capturing its radio station and parading downtown.
The fall of Goma is the latest move in one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest conflicts. Complicating the matter is Rwanda’s alleged support for the rebels. While M23 rebels on Monday withdrew to positions further from Goma to provide space for political talks, putting forward a list of demands in order to seal a cease-fire, the Congolese government rebuffed the offer.
That refusal set off the current clashes between Congo’s army and rebels, leading to an army withdrawal and M23 control of Goma. The Rwandan and Congolese presidents are reported to be meeting today to help defuse the crisis. The Ugandan government meanwhile, also accused of supporting M23, has said that it has called for calm, while blaming a U.N. report for the new violence.
M23’s rise can be seen as a continuation of events in 2008, during which another Rwandan-backed group known as the CNDP sowed chaos in resource-rich Eastern Congo. After the European Union threatened to intervene, the solution at the time, agreed to on Mar. 23, 2009, was to integrate the CNDP into the Congolese army. Instead of forging a lasting peace, many of those same soldiers defected earlier this year to form the M23, led by wanted war-criminal Gen. Bosco Ntaganda.
NGOs such as Amnesty International and others are highlighting the plight that internally displaced citizens face caught in the cross-fire, as thousands have fled. Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator Tariq Riebl, currently on the ground near Goma, said yesterday, “Families have been split up overnight and people are desperately going between sites trying to find loved ones. If fighting intensifies further, there are very few places people can go for safety. With almost 2.5 million people now displaced across eastern Congo, this catastrophe requires a concerted humanitarian and diplomatic response.”
Meanwhile, members of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the Congo, the largest in the world with 6,700 blue helmets in the North Kivu region alone, had utilized attack helicopters to bolster Congolese assaults on M23 positions for months, and retains control of Goma’s airport. However, the U.N. has reported that is pulling “non-essential personnel” from Eastern Congo as a precaution and the peacekeepers were unable to prevent Goma’s fall.
At the United Nations Security Council, French diplomats are currently circulating a draft resolution expressing its intention to impose financial and travel sanctions on the M23’s political and military supporters. While the text does not specifically call out Rwanda or Uganda, the draft is in line with a proposal put forward last week by a U.N. Group of Experts to apply these bans to the Rwandan Defense Minister. Rwanda is due to join the Council as a rotating member in Jan. 2013, a position that is facing intensifying scrutiny. The U.S. has not provided comment at this time whether they support France’s draft, which is due to be voted upon at 5:30 PM EST.