BUKAVU, Congo – The European Union is considering sending peacekeepers to help resolve the crisis in eastern Congo, an official said Monday, as renegade troops battled with government forces in new fighting over a strategic city in the area.
The gunbattles came when troops of rebel Col. Jules Mutebutsi (search) tried to prevent forces led by the government's regional commander from returning to the city of Bukavu (search), Mutebutsi said.
Forces loyal to Mutebutsi and a renegade general seized Bukavu last week, sparking the biggest threat yet to the cohesiveness of the power-sharing government in this Central African nation.
The government took power a year ago after a peace deal was reached in Congo's devastating five-year war.
The renegades say they're willing to return Bukavu to government control but demand the replacement of the government military commander, Brig. Gen. Mbuza Mabe (search), whose repression of Tutsis, the renegades say, started the revolt.
The United Nations has evacuated some staff and dependents of its 10,800-strong Congo mission after the fall of Bukavu set off angry protests in the capital, Kinshasa (search). Rioting mobs last week blamed the United Nations and the government for failing to prevent the city's capture.
On Sunday, U.N. authorities evacuated the families of several U.N. staffers to Brazzaville, capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo, spokesman Hamadoun Toure said. He would not say how many people had been taken out.
In previous days, 50 U.N. staffers in the east were evacuated to Entebbe in Uganda, Toure said.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel (search) said Monday the European Union was considering sending peacekeepers to eastern Congo.
"We are in agreement on the principle" of deployment, Michel told reporters in Kinshasa. "But we have to be sure of the modalities."
Michel was referring to a decision by Belgium, Congo's colonial-era ruler, that an EU force was needed to help stem the violence. The EU governing body said there had been no formal agreement yet by member states.
It would be the union's second-ever emergency military mission. The first, also in Congo, sent an 1,850-strong French-led force to the northeastern city of Bunia last year to help calm factional fighting there.
Michel talked with Congo President Joseph Kabila late Sunday and was due to meet Uganda's president Monday.
Kabila accuses Rwanda — Congo's chief rival in the civil war — of sending troops into eastern Congo to help seize Bukavu. Rwanda denies the charge, and U.N. officials in the east say they have seen no evidence of a Rwandan presence.
Mutebutsi and a second renegade commander — Brig. Gen. Laurent Nkunda — seized Bukavu on Wednesday, forcing Mabe and his troops to flee.
Nkunda pulled out of the city on Sunday, saying he had accomplished his objective. But Mutebutsi and his forces remained quartered in camps in Bukavu, an important trading center on the border with Rwanda.
U.N. troops have taken over security in the city to protect civilians, but have not intervened to stem the fighting between the armed factions.
On Monday, Mabe's government soldiers "came down the hills ... and were heading to our position while others were marching on the city center," Mutebutsi told The Associated Press. "We fought them and pushed them back, but they are still coming to attack."
Frightened residents rushed to their homes after hearing gunshots and seeing truckloads of Mutebutsi's troops driving out of town.
U.N. officials attempted to convince Mabe to halt his advance, said a U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On Sunday, Nkunda warned that his forces would return to Bukavu if Mabe attempted to retake the city.
Nkunda said Monday that he was to meet U.N. commanders in Kavumu, 22 miles north of Bukavu, to discuss the latest fighting.
Thursday's and Friday's violence in Kinshasa killed at least 12 people and injured 88 others. No U.N. staff were reported to have been harmed.
During the civil war, Nkunda and Mutebutsi — both Congolese Tutsis — were commanders in the main rebel group, the Rwanda-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy, which joined the transitional government when it was established.
Both were integrated into the national army, but later fell out with their commanders.
They say they launched their assault Wednesday because Mabe was persecuting members of a Tutsi community, the Banyamulenge.