Congo Rebels Advance; Protesters Hurl Rocks at U.N. Compound
NAIROBI, Kenya — Hundreds of furious protesters hurled rocks at a United Nations compound in eastern Congo on Monday in frustration that peacekeepers had not halted the rebel advance through the countryside, while the Spanish general leading the peacekeeping mission abruptly resigned.
Jaya Murthy, a spokesman for Unicef in the eastern Congo city of Goma, said heavy fighting between government troops and rebel forces was spawning a vast wave of internally displaced people, with tens of thousands evacuating several battle zones, often for the second or third time in recent months.
As many as 250,000 people have been driven from their homes since August, with the collapse of a peace deal between the government and rebels under the command of Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general who says he is fighting to protect ethnic Tutsis.
Several Western aid workers who spoke by phone from Goma on Monday described a panicky atmosphere, with the rebels gobbling up territory in the hills above Goma and Westerners hunkering down in their compounds, fearful of stepping outside.
“We’re on alert,” Mr. Murthy said. “We’re not sure what’s in store for the future, but whatever it is, it’s not good.”
The general who resigned, Lt. Gen. Vicente Díaz de Villegas y Herrería, was officially appointed just seven weeks ago to lead the United Nations’ Congo mission and had been in the country for only three weeks.
The announcement in New York that he was stepping down, from the spokeswoman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said only that General Díaz was leaving for “personal reasons.”
But some United Nations officials described his oral resignation as an emotional one. Two officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the resignation, said he had criticized the lack of a coherent strategy, the lack of a mandate and the lack of resources needed to get the peacekeeping job done.
General Díaz’s departure is expected to increase tension between the African forces serving with peacekeeping operations on the continent and United Nations headquarters, which has been lobbying heavily for the African Union to be more flexible about accepting outsiders. His appointment as force commander had been a significant test case in those efforts.
The rebel leader, Mr. Nkunda, has rejected several cease-fires brokered by the United Nations. Recently, he threatened to take his war all the way to Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, on the other side of the country.
His forces are much better trained and equipped than the government troops, who are notorious for turning their rusty guns on civilians and for fleeing when faced with a real threat. On Sunday, Mr. Nkunda’s forces seized an army base, for the second time in recent weeks.
According to United Nations officials, the protest started Monday morning around 9 after Congolese activists organized a large crowd to march on the United Nations compound in Goma. The protest quickly degenerated into violence, with demonstrators pelting the compound and nearby United Nations cars with large stones.
There were unconfirmed reports about casualties, with some Congolese officials reporting that the United Nations peacekeepers had killed two protesters in an attempt to quell the crowd. A spokesman for the peacekeepers could not be immediately reached.
The violence in eastern Congo has continued unabated for several years now, despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping force, with more than 17,000 troops. Brig. Gen. Ishmeel Ben Quartey of Ghana will lead the mission for the moment, the United Nations said, and Gen. Edmond Mulet of Guatemala, the assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, is in Congo.
“The population is not happy with the U.N.,” Mr. Murthy said. “They feel they are not protected. They are getting extremely angry.”