KINSHASA – The UN and World Bank chiefs made a fresh push for peace and development as they arrived Wednesday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the latest bout of fighting has sent thousands fleeing.
With major violence flaring up north of the regional hub of Goma for a third day after a six months truce, Kinshasa has accused the rebel movement, known as M23, of trying to scupper peace efforts in the restive eastern DR Congo.
Later Wednesday, the rebels announced they were ready for “an immediate cessation of hostilities to facilitate the visit of the United Nations secretary-general in the city of Goma”.
The group however warned that if the “truce” is not respected by Congolese forces, rebel fighters have been “clearly instructed to react vigorously with firmness.”
MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DR Congo, reported that a rocket launched from a rebel position on Wednesday had killed one person and injured four others.
According to the government, the fighting has left 19 dead since Monday.
A UN source said there was no question of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cancelling his trip to Goma because of the unrest, which comes barely a week after the first troops from the new UN intervention brigade arrived in the east.
Earlier in the day, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim had pledged $1 billion in aid for Africa’s Great Lakes region while Ban said “now is the time for peace and development for the people of DRC and of the region.”
“That is why we are here that is what we will continue to do one hundred per cent,” Ban said in Kinshasa after a meeting with President Joseph Kabila at the start of a three-day tour that will also take him to Uganda and Rwanda.
Despite vast mineral wealth, the country — which covers an area roughly the size of western Europe — is ranked by the UN as the world’s least developed and has been devastated by some of Africa’s deadliest wars.
Kim said the new funding, intended to promote health, education, trade and infrastructure in the region, “can be a major contributor to a lasting peace.”
The rebellion launched in the east last year, which led to the brief capture of Goma in November, threatened to drag the region into a fresh fully-fledged war amid UN claims Rwanda and Uganda backed the M23.
Regional and international diplomatic pressure forced peace talks on the warring parties but fresh fighting broke out on Monday, with each side blaming the other for the resumption of violence.
While the government said 15 rebels and four army troops died in the clashes, the M23 said the figures were inflated.
The UN’s refugee agency said the new spate of fighting less than 10 miles of Goma had led around 30,000 displaced civilians to flee their temporary shelters.
“The Mugunga I camp for the displaced, which housed 55,000 people, emptied by 45 percent while Mugunga III, which had 13,000 registered residents emptied by 70 percent,” spokesperson Simplice Kpandji told AFP.
Ban said during a visit to Mozambique earlier this week that the deployment of a rapid UN intervention force made up of about 3,000 African troops should be accelerated in view of the fresh unrest.
“Considering what has happened I think we must expedite the deployment so they will be fully responsible as soon as possible,” said Ban, who is also accompanied on his trip by UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous and Mary Robinson, the world body’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region.
The force was approved by the UN Security Council in March as its first ever “offensive” peacekeeping brigade.
Ban is due on Thursday to visit Goma, where troops from the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world have been deployed for years but chronically failed to prevent bloodshed and most recently failed to pin back the M23.
M23 — a largely ethnic Tutsi group — vowed to retaliate if attacked by UN troops.
They said they had come under attack from government forces early Wednesday.
“The FARDC (Congolese army) has been attacking us since 6:00 am (0400 GMT) with mortars, tanks and rocket launchers in the Mutaho area,” M23 military spokesman Vianney Kazarama told AFP.
Colonel Olivier Hamuli, spokesman for the army in North Kivu province, denied government forces had started the fighting.
“It is they who began (to attack) as they want to take Mutaho at any price… We are fighting back to defend our positions and so far we have suffered no losses,” Hamuli said.
He accused the rebels of deliberately firing mortar shells on civilians to rekindle a crisis and wreck international peace efforts.
UN and other aid groups said six people living near the Mugunga camp were wounded by shelling on Tuesday.