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Story Publication logo October 27, 2008

As Congo Rebels Advance, Civilians Target U.N.

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The 2006 election in the Democratic Republic of Congo was supposed to usher in a new period of peace...

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A 6 p.m. curfew was initiated for fear that vehicles of the United Nations might be attacked. Image by Michael Kavanagh. Congo, 2008.

Angry civilians attacked U.N. offices in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, accusing U.N. peacekeeping troops of failing to protect them. Rebels are making gains against government troops in the region. Michael Kavanagh, a reporter trapped in a U.N. base in Goma, says the U.N. troops are too few in number to protect the vast area of 8 million people.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Now to the latest disturbing news from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the past decade, the war in that country has claimed as many as five million lives. And to the east of the Congo, several thousand rebels are fighting against and gaining ground from the country's undisciplined and underpaid army.

Tens of thousands of people in that region have fled their homes, and they're angry. Mobs of civilians today attacked United Nations offices, accusing the U.N. peacekeeping troops of failing to protect them. Reporter Michael Kavanagh was at the UN.. base in the city of Goma. He joins us now to talk about the situation. Michael, you're still at the U.N. base in Goma, I gather?

MICHAEL KAVANAGH: Yes. I've been here most of the day now. We're stuck inside. It's possible we're going to have to spend the night here. Just now, I'm hearing small arms fired. It's been going on for about an hour. It seems like the front line is moving closer and closer to Goma. Earlier today, the rebels are about 12 miles from here. You can see displaced people coming down the streets in waves, and all day long, there have been protesters outside throwing rocks and lighting tires on fire. And no one's really been able to leave throughout, I guess, my understanding is the entire city of Goma.

SIEGEL: Well, are the protesters correct in their accusation that U.N. peacekeepers are failing to protect them, and is the U.N. in any position to be able to protect them?

KAVANAGH: The answer to that question is both no and yes. On the one hand, the U.N. force here will tell you that they're doing everything they can to protect these civilians. On the other hand, you have a situation where there are only 5,500 U.N. peacekeepers here in North Kivu. North Kivu is the province where this conflict is going on. It's on the border of Rwanda and Uganda. And this area is too vast, it's too mountainous, it's jungle-like, and it's just too difficult to protect the nearly eight million people who live here.

SIEGEL: And the U.N. said today that they, in fact, dispatched helicopter gunships to go after the rebels.

KAVANAGH: Right, and they've actually gone out with helicopter gunships and with tanks, and they reinforced the barriers outside Goma. And they're taking the fight straight to the rebels.

SIEGEL: Well, I want you to try to explain to us now who's fighting whom exactly? Who are the rebels who are opposing the Congolese army in the east of the Congo. What did they want? And who does appear to be winning?

KAVANAGH: You have right now rebels who are called the CNDP. It's run by a dissident general, a Tutsi. His name is Laurent Nkunda. And he has three objectives right now. One is for political power, a dialog with the government. The other thing is the return of the refugees. There are about 14,000 Tutsis, Congolese Tutsi refugees in Rwanda right now. He wants them home. And third thing is the removal of this group called the FDLR. The FDLR is a Rwandan Hutu force, the leaders of which committed genocide in Rwanda.

They've been here since the genocide, since 1994. And they're, in many ways, one of the largest causes of this conflict. There was a peace agreement in January that encouraged the Congolese army and the U.N. to get rid of these forces, the FDLR, so that Nkunda would lay down his arms. This hasn't happened. He basically has, in the last few weeks, called the government illegitimate, and he has called for all out war, which has infuriated the U.N. and infuriated the international community in general. But frankly, his troops are so powerful that no one can subdue him right now, as we're seeing today.

SIEGEL: I gather all this has delayed your schedule of departure from Goma?

KAVANAGH: It might. It might. It's not clear that we're going to be able to leave here tonight. And I do have a plane to catch in Kigali, in Rwanda tomorrow morning, and if the security situation stays like this, I don't know if I'll be getting on that plane.

SIEGEL: Well, good luck and take care.

KAVANAGH: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: It's reporter Michael Kavanagh. He spoke with us from inside U.N. headquarters in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The headquarters were besieged by protesters today, Congolese claiming that the U.N. is not doing enough to protect them from rebels. Also today, the U.N. announced that the commander of its mission on the Democratic Republic of Congo is resigning, citing personal reasons.

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