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Fighting in DR Congo after rebels reject calls to end offensive

24 november 2012, 12:50
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Fighting erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Thursday after rebels defiantly rejected international calls to pull out of the strategic city of Goma and end an offensive that has stoked fears of a wider conflict and humanitarian catastrophe, AFP reports.

As reports about renewed violence in the country's volatile east poured in President Joseph Kabila sacked the chief of land forces over UN accusations he runs a huge arms smuggling network supplying Congolese rebels and other groups, a spokesman said.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the dismissal was temporary, pending a "thorough investigation".

General Gabriel Amisi's sacking came two days after the regular FARDC forces suffered a humiliating setback when the M23 rebel group drove them out of the main eastern city of Goma.

A report by the UN Group of Experts on the DRC accuses Amisi of overseeing a network that provides arms and ammunitions to poachers and armed groups, including some with links to the M23.

The M23 rebel group's political leader insisted it would not withdraw from Goma, which the fighters captured easily despite the presence of UN peacekeepers, unless Kabila agrees to peace talks.

"There must first be a dialogue with President Kabila," Bishop Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero told AFP by telephone, before heading to Uganda where he was summoned for urgent talks with President Yoweri Museveni.

The Ugandan leader had issued a joint call with Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame at emergency talks in Kampala Wednesday for the rebels to withdraw and is due to hold a regional summit on the crisis on Saturday.

A UN report has accused both Uganda and Rwanda of backing the M23, claims both countries strongly deny.

International alarm about the unrest in the war-blighted central African nation has mounted since the mainly ethnic Tutsi rebels on Tuesday overran Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich North Kivu region on the shores of Lake Kivu.

Fighting flared Thursday around the town of Sake a day after it was captured by the advancing rebels, causing thousands of people to flee, many carrying mattresses on their heads, an AFP photographer said.

Explosions from shells and mortar bombs and the rattle of automatic machine-gun fire could be heard as plumes of smoke billowed into the sky over Sake, which lies about 30 kilometres northwest of Goma.

In Goma itself, shops reopened, residents returned and there was no sign of the M23 gangs which had been patrolling the streets earlier in the week, but water supplies remained cut.

The rebels, who first launched their uprising in April, have threatened to march all the way to the capital Kinshasa, about 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) away.

"The M23 has specific problems and demands but there are also broader problems with democracy in the DRC on social issues, governance and human rights," Runiga Lugerero told AFP.

The demand for Kabila to stand down was echoed by the opposition Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) whose leader Etienne Tshisekedi ran against the president in last year's hotly disputed elections.

UN envoy Roger Meece said Wednesday the rebels had carried out "summary executions" of local leaders in their sweep across the east, noting that they were "well provisioned and well supplied with uniforms and a variety of arms and ammunitions".

The United Nations and other humanitarian groups have reported killings, abductions, looting and extortion of civilians and fears of a humanitarian catastrophe were growing.

In a report published Wednesday that was first leaked last month, the UN charged that Rwanda was backing the rebels with troops and guns while Uganda also provided aid.

It said the M23 chain of command included wanted war crimes suspect Bosco Ntaganda, and was headed by Rwandan Defence Minister James Kabarebe.

A Security Council resolution on Tuesday condemned all external support for the rebels in violation of a UN arms embargo and called for wider sanctions against M23 leaders, a stance echoed by the United States.

The UN, which has around 1,500 "quick reaction" peacekeepers in Goma among around 6,700 troops across North Kivu, was forced to defend its peacekeepers after Goma fell, with a spokesman saying a battle for the city would have endangered civilians.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday urged Kagame to put pressure on the M23 to pull out of Goma, arguing Rwanda had yet to provide any evidence that it had no links to the M23.

Aid group Oxfam has described the situation as "a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale", saying that 760,000 people had been displaced across the east this year.

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court called Wednesday for the urgent arrest of wanted war crimes suspect Ntaganda, a former army general nicknamed the "Terminator", and Sylvestre Mudacumura, the commander of Hutu militia group the FDLR.

Both are wanted on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity in DR Congo.

The former Belgian colony is one of the world's least developed countries despite a wealth of cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold and coltan, a key component of mobile phones.

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