Goma (Congo): A rebel group created just seven months ago attacked the strategic provincial capital of Goma, home to more than 1 million people in eastern Congo, Tuesday, seizing part of the city and the international airport, according to a rebel spokesman, residents and eyewitnesses.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels appeared to push forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south.
The rebels are allegedly backed by neighboring Rwanda, which the Rwandan government denies.
"We already took the airport and part of the city," said rebel spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama, reached by telephone today. "We are now inside the city of Goma."
An official at the United Nations peacekeeping base in Goma, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press, confirmed that the airport had fallen.
A factory owner whose business faces the airport said he saw the rebels go onto the tarmac.
By this morning, he said that the shooting had stopped there and that the airport appeared quiet.
Goma was last threatened by rebels in 2008 when fighters stopped just short of Goma.
The United Nations has said that if Goma were to fall, a humanitarian catastrophe would result. The rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda, have been fighting Congolese government forces which are backed by UN peacekeepers, tasked with protecting civilians.
But Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli said that the UN peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during today`s battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels.
"MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions (at the airport).
We ask that the MONUSCO do more," he said.
Germany, which is a member of the UN Security Council, called on the rebels to halt their military action immediately.
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that he called on Congo`s neighbors, a reference to Rwanda and Uganda which are accused of backing M23, to not do anything to worsen the crisis.
"I expect of Congo`s neighboring states that they refrain from doing anything which further exacerbates the situation," Westerwelle said.