GOMA, Congo – Hundreds of Congolese soldiers rampaged through several villages in eastern Congo, raping women and pillaging homes as they pulled back ahead of a feared rebel advance, the U.N. reported.
U.N. peacekeeping spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said Tuesday that the army troops had reportedly raped civilians near the town of Kanyabayonga in violent attacks that began overnight that lasted into Tuesday morning.
Kanyabayonga is 60 miles north of the provincial capital, Goma.
Dietrich said 700 to 800 Congolese soldiers then fled Kanyabayonga and went on a rampage through several villages to the north.
"They looted vehicles, they looted some houses," Dietrich said by telephone from Kinshasa, the national capital.
A rare nighttime gunbattle erupted late Tuesday between rebels and the army just north of Goma, and the U.N. said it was trying to get the warring sides to move further apart. Mortars were also used during the nearly one-hour fight near Kibati, Dietrich said.
Kibati is six miles north of Goma and home to 75,000 people who have been repeatedly forced to flee the fighting.
"There is a big tension because there are so many people there and it's so close to Goma," Dietrich said.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 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.
"Because of the ongoing fighting, these people have received virtually no assistance. Their situation has grown increasingly desperate," Ban said.
The U.N. chief also said he was "very concerned by reports of targeted killings of civilians, looting and rape."
Ban said about 3,000 more U.N. peacekeeping soldiers and police were urgently needed to bolster the 17,000-strong U.N. force in Congo that has been unable to stop the fighting or halt the rebel advance.
The U.N. Security Council was meeting Tuesday to take up Ban's request.
Aid workers were trying to gain access to the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, both 10 miles south of Kanyabayonga in rebel-held territory, where they expected the need for food was urgent.
In normal times, the two towns have a combined population of more than 150,000. But aid workers said they have no idea how many people are there now. At least 250,000 people have been displaced by 10 weeks of fighting between army troops and rebels led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda.
A rebel spokesman said any aid workers who wanted to help civilians trapped in rebel-held territory would be safe.
"If there are NGOs who want to come to Rutshuru, they are welcome to come," rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said.
Congo's armed forces are notoriously ill-disciplined soldiers, historically better at looting than standing their ground. In recent days, some have been seen manning checkpoints drunk.
Dietrich said the U.N. flew helicopters over the ravaged area Tuesday, carried out foot patrols, and initiated an investigation into the violence with the Congolese army.
The fighting in eastern Congo is fueled by ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of at least 500,000 Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda. Nkunda says he is fighting to protect minority Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu militants who participated in the genocide before escaping to Congo.
A U.N. mission was sent to Kiwanja, about 50 miles north of Goma, to investigate reports of civilian massacres there. It visited 11 burial sites that witnesses said contained 26 bodies of combatants and civilians, Ban's spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said at least 50 civilians were killed there, mostly by rebels.
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.
On Tuesday, he waited with thousands of others for food aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In Kibati, about 70,000 people are living in makeshift camps. A long line snaked through town Tuesday morning as villagers picked up oil, maize flour, salt and beans.
Men were attempting to till a nearby field littered with volcanic rocks from an eruption in 2006.
"Normally they never try to plant there," said Abdallah Togola, an aid worker. "It's a big indication of how urgent the situation is."
Desire Burunga, 48, fled to Kibati with his four wives and twelve children in September, when fighting threatened his town of Kibumba.
"We used to live together and have no problem," said Burunga, a former county clerk. "After the affair in Rwanda, everyone has problems. Everyone is now aggressive after Rwanda."
Relief officials say they have recorded at least 90 cholera cases around Goma since Friday. Seven more were admitted to a clinic in Kibati on Monday night.
The World Health Organization said Tuesday it fears a cholera epidemic could break out if the fighting continues and people continue to live in makeshift camps without proper sanitation. At least 1,000 cases of cholera have been detected since the start of October.