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UN forces fight in DRC

Elizabeth Shoo / cmAugust 28, 2013

In a bid to improve its image in eastern Congo, the UN is for the first time fighting alongside the Congolese army against M23 rebels. However, MONUSCO's new strategy has reportedly cost the lives of two civilians.

Image: D.KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

"I was shocked by what I saw. Body parts including arms and legs were scattered everywhere." That's how Isaac Warwanamiza described what had happened near Goma, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Warwanamiza is a doctor working in the region. He says at least 82 people were killed during last weekend's (24/25.08.2013) fierce clashes involving the M23 rebel movement and the Congolese army. For the first time, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) fought on a massive scale alongside the Congolese soldiers. Around 720 government soldiers are said to lie injured in Goma hospitals.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is escorted by U.N. peacekeepers during his trip in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo's war-torn east, May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Jonny Hogg (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Goma in MayImage: Reuters

The battle was not only the most violent in months, but was also a turning point for the UN peace mission, which has been in the DRC for years. Previously, the UN never actively intervened in the conflict. This inaction led to discontent among the population. "We had completely lost faith in the UN mission," says Mustafa Mwiti, coordinator of NGOs in eastern Congo.

New force with a new mandate

But now there is a special UN combat brigade in Goma with a mandate to use military action against the rebels. That, says Mwiti, has raised hopes in many people that the unrest could soon end.

The recent escalation was initially a great disappointment for most Goma residents. Fighting began with attacks by the M23 rebels on army checkpoints outside of Goma. Civilians were later injured when hand grenades were thrown at them. According to eye witnesses, among the victims were two children aged three and six.

M23 rebel soldiers keep guard during the inauguration of newly elected M23 Rebel political wing President, Bertrand Bisimwa in Bunagana on March 7, 2013. AFP PHOTO/ ISAAC KASAMANI (Photo credit should read ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
M23 rebels have previously threatened to take over KinshasaImage: Isaac KasamaniAFP/Getty Images

It was not the first time that the rebels had attacked unarmed residents as well as the Congolese army and UN soldiers. In 2012, in full view of UN peacekeepers, the M23 rebel movement briefly seized control of Goma city with its one million inhabitants. This time, however, the blue helmets refused to be seen as useless spectators and responded by firing on M23 positions with helicopter gunships.

Winning Goma's trust

MONUSCO's chief Martin Kobler told his soldiers at the weekend "to take necessary measures" to protect the population. Kobler, a German diplomat who took over the leadership of MONUSCO just a few weeks ago, told DW in an interview that the UN would respond with all its might and force against further attacks by the rebels.

A displaced Congolese woman and her young child stand in a crowd of people waiting for humanitarian aid in a camp for the internally displaced in Mugunga, 8km west of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. . AFP PHOTO/PHIL MOORE (Photo credit should read PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)
Congo's conflict has displaced at least 2.2 million people according to the UNImage: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

The attempt by MONUSCO to win the trust of the population by using military action did not go as planned.

As in the past, demonstrators again took to the streets to protest against the UN mission. They criticized the UN soldiers, saying the rebel attacks on the population could have been prevented. As an angry mob tried to storm the UN camp in Goma, peacekeepers from Uruguay allegedly opened fire with live ammunition. Two demonstrators died. Kobler says his organization, together with the Congolese police, has launched an independent investigation into the deaths.

Accusations and counter-accusations

Many local and foreign observers suspect neighboring Rwanda is the mastermind behind the rebellion in eastern Congo. The North Kivu region is rich in mineral resources and anyone who controls the capital of Goma is assured of huge financial returns.

The M23 rebel outfit, which started a rebellion last year, is regarded as an ally of Rwanda. Local residents report that the first grenade attacks on civilians, in last week's clashes, came directly from Rwanda. "We saw and heard the direction from which they came," an eyewitness said. The 1 kilometer (0.62 mile) border between the states runs right at the edge of Goma city.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame attends the signing ceremony of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes, at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri (ETHIOPIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST HEADSHOT)
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has been criticized by human rights organizationsImage: Reuters

Rwanda, however, has always denied interfering in the conflict in eastern Congo or providing any support to the M23 rebels. Instead, they accuse the DRC of provocation. Rwandan army spokesman Joseph Nzabamwita recently accused the Congolese army of deliberately firing a rocket across the border.