NAIROBI, Kenya -- Rebel fighters seized one of the biggest, most vital cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday, setting off riots in several places across the country and raising serious questions about the stability of Congo as a whole.
The rebel forces took Goma, a vibrant commercial hub on Congo's eastern flank, with little resistance from the national army, which simply fled. Witnesses said United Nations peacekeepers just sat in their armored personnel carriers and watched. As the news began to filter across the country, protesters in Kinshasa, the capital, and Kisangani, another major city, poured into the streets, some of them burning buildings, furious that their government was so weak.
In many ways, it was history repeating itself in a country with one of the most haunted, blood-soaked histories in Africa. The trouble goes back more than a century, to when the Belgians waded into this lush expanse in the heart of Africa and brutalized the population in order to extract as much rubber and ivory as possible. In the mid-1990s, rebel forces and several foreign African armies swept through Congo, overthrowing the government and snatching enormous tracts of territory rich in copper, timber, diamonds and gold.
Millions of people died in the ensuing chaos, and back then, just like now, the trouble started in the east.
The rebel group that now controls Goma, called the M23, is relatively small, with just a few thousand fighters who U.N. investigators say have received clandestine support from neighboring Rwanda. Still, Goma is symbolic, and its loss could set off a chain reaction.
"The fall of Goma has always been a lodestar," said Willet Weeks, a political analyst in Nairobi who has been following Congo since the 1970s. "Whether the government can regain any stability in the next few days will be the question."
Congo's government has been sent into a tailspin, and many analysts believe chances are increasing for a military putsch along the lines of what happened in Mali this year when disaffected officers seized power, citing the government's fecklessness against rebels. Or maybe other important areas of Congo, like copper-rich Lubumbashi, will rise up, which could cause Congo to fragment, fulfilling all the grim prophecies circulating for years that Congo is simply too vast and too complicated to be one country.
Many Congolese are fed up with the president, Joseph Kabila, who is seen by critics as disengaged, indecisive and incompetent, unable to muster a functioning army or breathe life into any national institutions. The dissatisfaction burst into the open last November, during Mr. Kabila's re-election campaign, when opposition supporters took to the streets and his troops opened fire on them.
On Tuesday, Congolese officials sought to blame Goma's fall on Rwanda, which has meddled in Congo many times before and occupied large parts of the country from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.