KILIMANYOKA, Congo – Rebels advanced toward Congo's eastern provincial capital of 600,000 people Tuesday, sending tens of thousands of terrified civilians into a makeshift shelter as Congolese troops and U.N. tanks retreated.
The sudden influx tripled the size of the camp in Kibati in a matter of hours, said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
"It's chaos up there," Redmond told The Associated Press. "These crowds of people coming down from the north have already started turning up there."
A hundred refugees a day, mostly women and children, also were fleeing across the border into Uganda, that country's Red Cross said.
Click here for photos.
In Kibati, a few miles from the front line, young men lobbed rocks Tuesday at three U.N. tanks also heading away from the battlefield. The U.N. has 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Congo — the biggest mission in the world.
"What are they doing? They are supposed to protect us," said Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse from Kibumba.
The chaos in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars. Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire brokered by the U.N. in January.
Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Nkunda's ambitions have expanded since he launched a fresh onslaught on Aug. 28 — he now declares he will "liberate" all of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe with vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. Congo's vast mineral wealth helped fuel back-to-back wars from 1997-2003.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last two months, the U.N. says, joining 1.2 million displaced in previous conflicts in the east. Outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea have killed dozens in camps, compounding the misery.
On Monday, peacekeepers in attack helicopters fired at the rebels trying to stop them taking Kibumba, a village on the main road 30 miles north of Goma. But fleeing civilians say the fighters overran Kibumba anyway.
The rebels retaliated by firing a missile at one U.N. combat helicopter Monday, but missed, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said.
Several foreign aid workers have fled fighting from Rutshuru as rebels closed in on that town, several miles north of Goma, she said. The U.N. was trying to evacuate them from a nearby town but were being prevented by local officials who are angry with the peacekeepers, she said.
U.N. efforts to halt Nkunda's rebellion are complicated by the country's rugged terrain, dense tropical forests that roll over hills and mountains with few roads.
On Tuesday, a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said rebels in civilian clothes made several attempts to infiltrate Goma, but U.N. peacekeepers spotted them and forced them to return.
Also Tuesday, a U.N. helicopter gunship patrolled the sky in Kilimanyoka, 7 miles north of Goma. Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said he expected the helicopters to soon attack their front line, which he said is within 12 miles of Goma.
The U.N. spokeswoman said U.N. attack helicopters were trying to impede the rebels and they appear to have succeeded in part Tuesday. Late afternoon there were about 200 government soldiers nearly 2 miles beyond the line of the troops that retreated, being resupplied from a truck loaded with rocket-propelled grenades.
The chief U.N. mandate is to protect the population. But since the peace deal it also is supposed to help the Congolese army disarm and repatriate Hutu militiamen — by force if necessary.
But Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, claimed Tuesday the Congolese army has abandoned dozens of its positions to Hutu militiamen.
"It's the Hutus who are on the front line and whom we are fighting, not the army," he said. U.N. peacekeepers "leave us no choice but to fight on."
Nkunda long has charged that Congolese soldiers fight alongside the militia of Hutus, an ethnic majority of about 40 percent in the region.
Some 800 Hutu militiamen have voluntarily returned to Rwanda, the U.N. says, but the fighters recruit and coerce Congolese Hutu children and young men into their ranks daily — far outnumbering those who have returned home.
Civil leaders led by Jason Luneno said if U.N. peacekeepers cannot halt the rebel advance, the peacekeepers should leave Congo and "the people will descend into the streets to demand the government resign."
Tensions also are high on the diplomatic front. Congo this week repeated charges that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government is sending troops across the border to reinforce Nkunda. Rwanda denies the charges and the U.N. says they are unfounded.