GOMA, Congo – Angola announced Wednesday it is mobilizing troops to send to neighboring Congo, heightening fears that the fighting in this central African nation will engulf other countries in the region.
Angolan Deputy Foreign Minister Georges Chicoty did not say how many troops will go to Congo or what their mission would be, and it was unclear whether they would be acting as peacekeepers or supporting the government in its fight against rebels led by former general Laurent Nkunda. He spoke on Angolan national radio.
The presence of Angolans soldiers in the volatile region would likely be seen as a provocation to Rwanda, which battled Angolans during Congo's devastating 1998-2002 war. That four-year-conflict ripped Congo into rival fiefdoms, with rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda controlling vast swaths of territory rich in coffee, gold and tin in the east. At the time, Angola and Zimbabwe sent tanks and fighter planes to back Congo's government in exchange for access to lucrative diamond and copper mines to the south and west.
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Congo asked Angola for political and military support Oct. 29, as Nkunda's rebels advanced on the provincial capital, Goma. Associated Press reporters have already seen Portuguese-speaking soldiers wearing green berets with pins in the shape of Angola appearing to guard a road alongside Congolese soldiers.
Fighting in Congo intensified in August and has since displaced at least 250,000 people despite the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. U.N. officials say both the rebels and government troops have committed crimes against civilians.
Nkunda called a unilateral cease-fire Oct. 29, but fighting has persisted.
After a closed-door meeting Tuesday, members of the 15-nation U.N. Security Council and the Congolese ambassador said broad agreement exists for beefing up the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, which has been unable to stop the fighting or halt the rebel advance.
"The idea is more or less approved," Congo Ambassador Ileka Atoki said, adding that the council is waiting for another report on Congo next week from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.
A rare nighttime gunbattle erupted late Tuesday between rebels and the army just north of Goma, at Kibati, where at least 75,000 people have sought refuge from the fighting. U.N. peacekeepers worked to
"There is a big tension because there are so many people there and it's so close to Goma," U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said.
North of Kibati on Wednesday, the bodies of two dead government soldiers lay in the center of the road beside a rebel checkpoint.
Rebels, standing in the shade of trees on both sides of the road, had positioned the corpses on their backs, using them as a makeshift roadblock. One body had a bullet hole in his forehead. Neither had boots.
A few civilians walked past nervously.
One of them, 18-year-old John Biamungu, said he and his family had spent the night in a banana field after the shooting erupted.
"We walked past and the rebels said to us, "What are you looking at?" Biamungu said. "We didn't say anything. We kept moving."
A few miles (kilometers) to the south, thousands of people lined up to get survival kits being handed out from five white International Committee of the Red Cross trucks. The kits contained buckets, blankets, soap, hoes and cooking utensils, said Abdallah Togola, an ICRC official in Kibati.
Togola said the area was reaching its capacity to handle refugees.
"All the schools and churches are full," he said, adding that local families have taken in about six people each.
The U.N. chief called Tuesday for an immediate cease-fire so aid workers could urgently help "at least 100,000 refugees" cut off in rebel-held areas north of Goma. Ban also said he was "very concerned by reports of targeted killings of civilians, looting and rape."
Dietrich said up to 800 Congolese army troops rampaged through several towns in eastern Congo this week as they retreated from the rebels. He said some had reportedly raped civilians near the town of Kanyabayonga, 60 miles north of Goma.
He said they fled Kanyabayonga on Tuesday and went on a rampage through several villages to the north, looting vehicles and houses.
The army troops are notoriously ill-disciplined. In recent days, some have been seen manning checkpoints drunk.
Closer to Goma, the situation for displaced refugees was dire.
"I haven't eaten properly in three weeks," said Teoneste Dies, 22. He fled his home three weeks ago with his wife and three children, surviving on whatever potatoes they could scrounge.