GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Hundreds of people protested in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma on Thursday against President Joseph Kabila, accusing him of incompetence in efforts to neutralize rebels who have long plagued the region.
Heavy fighting erupted between the army and the M23 rebel group on Sunday 12 km (7.5 miles) northeast of Goma, ending several weeks of relative calm and reviving memories of an attack in November when the Tutsi-led insurgents briefly seized the city of 1 million people.
After four days of clashes, during which the army pushed the rebels several kilometers (miles) further from the city, the front line was quiet on Thursday.
Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd from the center of Goma where protesters blocked roads and displayed a sign saying “Kabila Must Go”. Shops and businesses were shuttered.
Even after the rebels were repelled, “there were rumors circulating this morning that the government was going to replace senior army officers,” said local journalist Charles Lwanga. “The population staged peaceful demonstrations, trying to block the airport and the port.”
Lambert Mende, spokesman for the Kinshasa government, said it had no plans to replace the military command in Goma and that the rumor had been circulated by M23 itself.
Some Goma residents accused members of the U.N. peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) of blocking the path of the Congolese army as it sought to push northward to overrun M23 positions.
MONUSCO officials were not immediately available for comment. The peacekeeping mission said earlier this week it was prepared to use lethal force against the rebels if they again approached Goma and threatened civilian lives.
The United Nations is now deploying a new kind of peacekeeping force with a tough mandate to take on rebel groups to try to end the decades-old conflict in Congo’s mineral-rich east in which millions have died since the 1990s.
The 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade has begun patrols but not yet entered combat.
Reporting by Chrispin Mvano in Goma and Bienvenu-Marie Bakumanya in Kinshasa; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mark Heinrich