The Congolese rebel group M23 marched into the strategic eastern city of Goma on Tuesday, declaring the city is "in our hands". Earlier, M23 captured Goma's airport after days of intense fighting with government troops.
Congo’s M23 rebels took control of the eastern city of Goma after days of clashes with UN-backed Congolese soldiers, a spokesman for the rebel group said on Tuesday.
A Reuters witness saw scores of heavily armed rebels walking through the city unchallenged as UN peacekeepers watched and small groups of residents greeted them.
“The town of Goma fell at 11:33 local time; despite the attack helicopters, despite the heavy weapons, the FARDC (Congo army) has let the town fall into our hands,” M23 spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama said by telephone.
"The airport is under the control of the M23," the UN official said on condition of anonymity, referring to the rebel group.
Rebels back by Rwanda?
The capture of the Goma comes a day after rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda, said they were halting their advance on the key city to enter into peace talks with the government.
But government spokesman Lambert Mende told the Associated Press by phone that negotiations are out of the question, saying Congo will not give into the “blackmail” of a Rwandan-backed group.
“We refuse to enter into negotiations with M23. Because it’s Rwanda, not the M23, that is responsible,” said Mende, before the fall of the city on Tuesday. “If Goma falls, it’s going to create a whole other set of problems. We refuse systematically to speak to them (M23). Because if we do, it would be a way to wash away Rwanda’s responsibility.”
Goma economic heart of mineral rich region
Congo and Rwanda have already fought two wars, the most recent of which ended in 2003 after lasting nearly six years. On Monday, both nations accused the other of firing mortars across the narrow border that runs on one side of Goma, a city of 1 million which is the economic heart of Congo’s mineral rich region.
Rwandan Military Spokesman Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita said that Congolese shells had fallen on the Rwandan side, while Mende said that a mortar fired from Rwanda landed in the Birere neighborhood near the airport in Goma and wounded at least five people.
As tanks rumbled by, civilians, including young children, could be seen running to safety, seeking shelter in huts and behind ledges along the road where the two sides were battling.
Earlier, M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama told the Associated Press that his men were on their way back to Kibumba, 30 kilometers (18 miles) north, in order to give proposed talks a chance. But on Monday afternoon, Kazarama blamed Congo for renewed hostilities and once again vowed that M23 would take Goma.
“The army provoked us. They have fired on our men ... We are going to take Goma tonight,” he said.
On Saturday, UN Peacekeeping Chief Herve Ladsous said the rebels are very well-equipped, including with night-vision equipment, allowing them to fight at night.
The new equipment, including the goggles as well as 120 mm mortars, were being provided by Rwanda, which also sent several battalions of fighters, according to the International Crisis Group.
At UN Headquarters in New York on Monday, French Ambassador Girard Araud said he would be introducing a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on the M23 rebel leadership.