GOMA, Congo – The rebel general besieging Congo's eastern provincial capital said Thursday that he wants direct talks with the government about security and his objections to a $5 billion deal that gives China access to the region's mineral resources.
Gen. Laurent Nkunda said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that the reason he called a cease-fire Wednesday as he reached the gates of Goma was to try to stop chaos in the city. He said he wants U.N. peacekeepers to help refugees return home.
Nkunda, leading a Tutsi rebellion in eastern Congo, said the government is not protecting the country's Tutsi minority. He said he turned down a government offer of $2.5 million to stop fighting because he could not abandon his mission to protect Congo's people.
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He also said he saw his role in a peaceful Congo as reformer of the ragtag army. His rebels have driven the Congolese army into retreat near Goma, but the army says it still controls the city.
On Thursday, army Col. Jonas Padiri said the situation was calm. Soldiers were patrolling the city in trucks; one soldier, sitting by the side of the road, wore a Darth Vader mask. Some soldiers appeared drunk at 8 a.m.
Asked whether the army would respect Nkunda's cease-fire, Padiri told The AP: "You're going to have to ask the governor that."
U.N. Radio Okapi quoted an unidentified official as saying the government had not been officially informed of the cease-fire but is "always open to dialogue."
In overnight violence, Congolese soldiers killed at least nine people and looted homes and stores in attacks that terrorized residents of Goma, according to U.N. radio station.
Padiri said at least five people were killed by "thieves." The U.N. radio station said soldiers looted homes and shops, killed nine people, injured three and raped three girls.
Airlines canceled flights to Goma, as did the United Nations, whose staff were holed up in one of its lakeside compounds.
People thronged the streets Thursday morning, looking worried and asking for information, though police officers in a jeep circulated with a megaphone urging them to stay home. Shops were shuttered and schools closed.
U.N. troops patrolling in armored cars were cheered wildly by residents of Goma who earlier this week attacked U.N. compounds with rocks to vent their outrage that the peacekeepers were not halting the rebel advance.
The rebels said they were at the gates of Goma, but Padiri claimed his men had recaptured the nearby village of Kibati.
Hours earlier, firing wildly, Congolese soldiers commandeered cars, taxis and motorbikes in a retreat from advancing rebel fighters, joining tens of thousands of terrified refugees struggling to stay ahead of the violence. Gunfire crackled through the night.
Safari Katwa, a 43-year-old father of eight, said soldiers broke down the door of his home, forced his family to lie face-down on the floor and stole jewelry and cell phones. He said he saw two corpses in his Katindo-Ndosho neighborhood in northern Goma.
Struggles for Congo's mineral wealth have long been part of the country's wars.
A U.N. investigation on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that the conflict in the country had become mainly about "access, control and trade" of five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold.
Exploitation of Congo's natural resources by foreign armies was "systematic and systemic," and the Ugandan and Rwandan leaders in particular had turned their soldiers into "armies of business."
The U.N. panel estimated that Rwanda's army made at least $250 million in 18 months by selling coltan, which is used in cell phones and laptops.
The conflict "has created a 'win-win' situation for all belligerents," the 2001 report concluded. "The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people."
As the chaos mounted this week, the United States announced its officials were leaving Goma and urged all American citizens to do the same. The State Department said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer was heading to the capital, Kinshasa, and would arrive Thursday.
The U.N. says its biggest peacekeeping mission — a 17,000-strong force — is now stretched to the limit with the surge in fighting and needs more troops quickly. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay and South Africa are the main contributors to the existing force.
The unrest in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which half a million Tutsis were slaughtered. More than a million Hutu extremists fled to Congo where they regrouped in a brutal militia that helps fuel the continuing conflict in Congo.
Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi and former general, quit the army several years ago, claiming the government of President Joseph Kabila was not doing enough to protect minority Tutsis from the Hutu extremists.