LUOFU, Congo – Rebels steadily advanced in eastern Congo on Tuesday, and fleeing government soldiers even fought with their allies as army control in the region broke down, witnesses said.
The Mai Mai militia normally support the government, but they appeared to be taking advantage of the army's retreat to steal the soldiers' weapons, witnesses said.
"They (Mai Mai) are seeing soldiers fleeing and they want them to leave their arms with them," Bahati Maene, 19, told The Associated Press after fleeing his home Monday night.
The fighting Tuesday took place around Kanyabayonga, about 80 miles north of the regional capital, Goma. Clashes between fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda on one side and the army and its allied spear-wielding militias on the other exploded in August and have displaced at least 250,000 people.
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Nkunda told U.N. envoy Olusegun Obasanjo on Sunday that he was committed to a cease-fire and U.N. efforts to end the fighting, but his troops have been carving out an even greater territory in the remote hills north of Goma.
Congolese army Lt. Jean-Pierre Lumisa said the fighting with the Mai Mai was an "isolated case."
"They are not our enemies," he said. "They are just difficult to control and coordinate with."
The army's disarray is so dire that Congolese President Joseph Kabila has sacked his army chief. Didier Etumba, a high ranking officer, was promoted to the rank of general on Monday. Etumba was named chief of the army "due to the necessity and the urgency of the situation," according to a presidential decree.
Congo has the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops, but the peacekeepers have been unable to either stop the fighting or protect civilians. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the top U.N. envoy in Congo, Alan Doss, have been urging the Security Council to send strengthen the peacekeeping force in Congo.
A draft Security Council resolution, obtained by The Associated Press on Monday, proposed temporarily adding about 3,100 troops and police to the peacekeeping force in Congo.
It condemns the resurgence of violence in eastern Congo and demands all parties immediately respect a cease-fire. It also expresses "extreme concern" over reported attacks targeting civilians, rapes, the recruitment of child soldiers and summary executions.
Nkunda declared a unilateral cease-fire in late October as his fighters swarmed toward Goma, which serves as regional headquarters for the provincial government, the U.N. and aid groups.
Since then, rebels have consolidated their positions, appointing their own local administrators and forcibly recruiting young men and boys to join their ranks, aid workers say.
Although the rebels halted outside Goma, they have advanced farther north. Today they control the entire road from Goma to the doorstep of Kanyabayonga.
The dilapidated route winds through Virunga National Park, where elephants roam and troops of baboons can be seen scurrying through the road. Several park ranger stations and gates are abandoned, littered with boots and discarded uniforms.
The World Food Program says it is handing out food to more than 235,000 people in different areas of eastern Congo, including some regions controlled by rebels. But spokeswoman Emilia Casella said Tuesday that more than 28,000 people are cut off from aid because of violence and bad roads.
In a sprawling camp of 19,000 people about 12 miles west of Goma, thousands of people lined up for hours for 20-day rations of food: a handful of salt, a few cups of oil and a few pounds of corn flour and beans.
Despite the seemingly meager rations, the crowd cheered when receiving the food from aid workers, pumping the air with their plastic buckets and plastic bags.
But less than a mile away, 35-year-old Mateo Biroto shoveled clumps of sticky black dirt over a rough wooden coffin. His wife, Rebecca Yalala, had died the day before of complications from diabetes and malaria.
"When she came to the camp, she became very weak," he said, blinking back tears as about 10 congregants sang hymns in front of the woman's unmarked grave. "She became weak because in the camp she didn't have a good life."
"I loved her so much," Biroto said. "For me, she was very, very, very beautiful."