UN, regional diplomats seek to stem Congo crisis after Goma falls

Tue Nov 20, 2012 8:01pm EST

* Goma quiet after army, UN give up fight over lakeside town

* Diplomats at UN debate resolution over crisis

* Uganda seeks to mediate between foes Congo and Rwanda

By Jonny Hogg

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov 21 (Reuters) - D iplomats at the United Nations and regional mediators in Central Africa sought overnight Wednesday to ward off a deeper conflict after rebels widely believed to be backed by Rwanda captured the eastern Congolese town of Goma.

Uganda's president will try to broker a meeting between the leaders of Congo and Rwanda in Kampala during the day on Wednesday, while diplomats in New York wrangled over how to react to the town's fall to M23 rebels, officials said.

The French government expressed broad frustrations with U.N. peacekeepers, who gave up the battle for the town of one million after Congo's army retreated, saying it was "absurd" that the U.N. force did not protect the city.

Democratic Republic of Congo has accused neighbouring Rwanda, whose army had repeatedly intervened in Congo's conflicts during the last 15 years, of backing the rebels. Kigali denies the charge and has called for dialogue.

As night fell in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, gunfire had died down and the streets were largely deserted, apart from some rebel patrols on the streets.

Rebels used local radio and television stations to appeal for calm, but there are fears of human rights abuses and tens of thousands of people have already fled days of fighting between the rebels and U.N.-backed Congolese soldiers.

At the United Nations, France has drafted a U.N. Security Council resolution that was being debated and that Paris hopes to put to a vote in the 15-member council as soon as possible.

France said it would demand that the rebels withdraw and disband and request additional sanctions on M23 commanders.

The resolution would also ask U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report to the council on external support being given to M23, France said.

While conflict has simmered almost constantly in Congo's east in recent years, this is the first time Goma has fallen to rebels since foreign occupying armies officially pulled out under peace deals at the end of the most recent 1998-2003 war.

Aid agencies have estimated that five million people have died from fighting and conflict-related disease since the 1998 war began.

Hundreds of rebels, who took up arms in April complaining that Kinshasa had failed to comply with the terms of a deal that ended a previous rebellion in 2009, poured into the lakeside town on Tuesday.

After sporadic gunfire, government troops melted away to the west.

U.N. peacekeepers who had launched helicopter gunships to back the army did nothing to stop rebels moving into town.

"MONUSCO is 17,000 soldiers, but sadly it was not in a position to prevent what happened," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, referring to the U.N.'s Congo mission.

"It is necessary that the MONUSCO mandate is reviewed."

But a senior U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal of civilian and military Congolese officials had left a void it could not fill alone.

"We're not the army of any country, let alone the Congolese army, and it's not for us to take positions by ourselves to stop a rebel attack or the movement of rebels," the official said.

"Our job is to protect civilians," the official added.

KAMPALA MEETING

The M23 rebellion has aggravated tensions between Congo and its neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa's government says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing the chaotic region's mineral wealth that includes diamonds, gold and coltan, used in mobile phones.

Officials in the office of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the regional mediator for the conflict, said he would seek to host a face-to-face meeting between Congo's President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda's Paul Kagame in Kampala on Wednesday.

Congo's government on Tuesday rejected the idea of talks with rebels. But Rwanda's foreign minister said the fall of Goma had shown there was no military solution to the crisis, so Kinshasa had to seek the path of dialogue.

The capture of Goma will be an embarrassment for Kabila, who won re-election late last year in polls that provoked widespread riots.

There were pockets of demonstrations against the fall of Goma in other towns, and Kabila faces the tricky choice between dialogue with the rebels, which will be politically unpopular, and trying to rally his scattered forces in North Kivu.