DAKAR, Senegal – Aid workers warned Wednesday that armed groups are setting up new front lines in and around the city of Goma in eastern Congo, where the U.N. said it now has documented at least 126 rape cases last month.
Thousands of fighters from the M23 rebel group withdrew several weeks ago from Goma, and the fighters have since taken steps toward negotiating with the Congolese government.
However, residents in Goma say M23 and other armed fighters are now positioning themselves in an around the city — including inside camps for people displaced by the violence.
The arrival of several thousand fighters within the last week is prompting fear among civilians, who already have experienced years of fighting and rebellions, said Tariq Riebl, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator there.
"They are very concerned — people are seeing this and they don't know what it means," he said. "I think what everyone is scared about is that it seems like people are ramping up, ramping up but for what purpose?"
Oxfam warns that more than 1 million people could come under attack if violence again flares in Goma, where more than 100,000 people already have fled from elsewhere in the region.
"Goma is typically the last refuge safe haven and now it's being directly called into question. If Goma falls in a big battle, where are people going to go?" Riebl said.
"This is very, very disconcerting because you have a population of over 1 million people and if war were to break out, we're looking at a horrific situation."
The M23 rebel group, which is believed to be backed by neighboring Rwanda, is made up of hundreds of soldiers who deserted the Congolese army in April.
They took control of many villages and towns in the mineral-rich east over the last seven months, culminating in the seizure of Goma on Nov. 20. It took days of negotiations and intense international pressure, including from the U.N., for the thousands of fighters from M23 to finally withdraw from the regional capital.
The U.N. mission says it's received allegations of serious rights violations, including killings and wounding of civilians, rape, looting, and forced recruitment of children, by elements of the M23 rebels in Goma and neighboring areas.
Congo's armed forces are also blamed for a series of attacks as they fled Goma in retreat in late November.
The U.N. said Tuesday it now has been able to document at least 126 rapes during that period in the Minova area, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) south of Goma.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said that two Congolese soldiers so far have been arrested in connection with the rapes, while seven others had been implicated in looting in the area.
"The Congolese Armed Forces have started investigating those human rights violations," he said. "The U.N. Mission is supporting the military justice procedure in conducting thorough investigations into these allegations to ensure that the perpetrators are identified and held accountable."
Rape has long been used as a brutal weapon of war in eastern Congo, where both soldiers and various armed groups use sexual violence to intimidate, punish and control the population.