U.N. defends failed attempt to halt capture of Congo's Goma

KINSHASA Wed Nov 21, 2012 9:36am EST

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The United Nations defended its failed effort to prevent rebels from seizing the Congolese city of Goma, saying on Wednesday its helicopters had fired hundreds of rockets at rebels but were unable to beat them back when their forces sharply increased.

Advancing M23 rebels seized the city on Tuesday after soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo's army fled.

Goma is a regional headquarters of a U.N. force tasked with assisting government troops to protect civilians, but peacekeepers largely looked on once the army fled and the city fell.

France called the failure of the peacekeeping force, which has heavy weapons and helicopters, to halt the advance of the lightly-armed rebels "absurd", and said its mandate should be reviewed.

U.N. helicopter gunships flew 17 sorties, firing 500 rockets and four missiles in the defense of the town, the United Nations said on Wednesday in a statement giving its account of the battle. Two South African peacekeepers were injured, it added.

About 500 rebels made an initial advance on November 15, of whom about 64 were killed by army forces backed by U.N. helicopter gunships, it said. But two days later the rebels returned in far greater numbers, launching a new attack with 3,000 men.

"Facing this new offensive ... which had a surprising firepower, Congolese forces were determined in the defense of their positions before pulling back ... despite support from their and our attack helicopters," the U.N. statement said.

The sudden increase in the size and capability of the rebel force is likely to add to accusations that the fighters are receiving backing from abroad.

Congo and U.N. experts have accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels, a charge Rwanda rejects.

The U.N. Security Council has expressed "concern at reports indicating that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment" but did not name Rwanda.

The rebellion was launched eight months ago by mutinous troops accusing the government of failing to stick to a 2009 deal with insurgents to end a previous conflict. On Wednesday they said their aim was to "liberate" the country.

(Reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff)

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