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Congo Update - As Congo Rebels Advance, Protesters Throw Rocks at U.N. Compound (The New York Times)

Originally published in:
The New York Times

NAIROBI, Kenya — Hundreds of furious protesters hurled rocks at a United Nations compound in eastern Congo on Monday in frustration that peacekeepers have not halted the rebel advance that is sweeping the countryside.

The rebels are now in control of several major towns and the headquarters of a national park where endangered mountain gorillas live in the middle of a shrinking ring of safety.

Jaya Murthy, a spokesman for Unicef in the eastern Congo city of Goma, said heavy fighting was raging in several areas between government troops and rebel forces under the command of Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general who says he is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis.

Mr. Murthy said the conflict was spawning a vast wave of internally displaced people, with tens of thousands fleeing battle zones, often for the second or third time in recent months. As many as 250,000 people have been driven from their homes since the fighting between the rebels and government forces intensified in August.

“We’re on alert,” Mr. Murthy said. “We’re not sure what’s in store for the future, but whatever it is, it’s not good.”

Mr. Nkunda has rejected several cease-fires brokered by the United Nations. Recently, he threatened to take his war all the way to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, on the other side of the country.

His forces are much better trained and equipped than the government troops, who are notorious for turning their rusty guns on civilians but fleeing when facing a real threat. On Sunday, Mr. Nkunda’s forces seized a government army base, for the second time in recent weeks.

Several Western aid workers who spoke by phone from Goma on Monday described a panicky atmosphere, with the rebels gobbling up territory in the hills above Goma and Westerners hunkering down in their compounds, fearful of stepping outside.

According to United Nations officials, the protest started Monday morning around 9 after Congolese activists organized a large crowd to march on the United Nations headquarters in Goma. The protest quickly degenerated into violence, with demonstrators pelting the compound and nearby United Nations cars with large stones. There were mixed reports about casualties, with some Congolese officials reporting that the United Nations peacekeepers had killed two protesters in an attempt to quell the crowd. A spokesman for the United Nations peacekeepers was unable to be reached immediately.

The violence in eastern Congo has continued unabated for several years now, despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping force, with more than 17,000 troops.

“The population is not happy with the U.N.,” Mr. Murthy said. “They feel they are not protected. They are getting extremely angry.”