Alarming Picture as Rebels Prepare to Leave City in Congo

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- Lootings. Assassinations. A spreading sense of lawlessness.

That was the alarming picture that emerged on Friday from Goma, a rebel-held city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, despite vows by the rebels to withdraw peacefully.

Human rights groups said that the M23 rebels who captured Goma last week were now going on an assassination campaign as they prepared to leave, creating a vortex of crime and confusion.

"I think it will be extremely chaotic over the next few days," said Ida Sawyer, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

On Friday morning, residents in Goma reported that the rebels were piling cases of ammunition and other looted supplies onto trucks, with some of it heading toward neighboring Rwanda. And a new letter to a United Nations Security Council committee said that the Rwandan Army had crossed the border into Congo and had helped the fighters capture Goma in the first place.

Rwandan troops "openly entered into Goma through one of the two official border crossings," said the letter, which was written by Steve Hege, the coordinator of a United Nations investigative panel, and was leaked by a third party.

The panel has accused Rwanda -- with help from Uganda -- of creating, equipping and commanding the rebels. In his letter, Mr. Hege contended that once the rebels and Rwandan soldiers chased the Congolese Army out of Goma, "these troops together took control over the entire city, marching through downtown dressed in a combination of R.D.F. and new M23 uniforms," using R.D.F. to signify the Rwanda Defense Force.

Rwanda has strenuously denied any covert involvement in this round of conflict in eastern Congo, which is threatening to destabilize the country. But Rwanda has sent thousands of soldiers across the border to overthrow the Congolese government at least twice in the past, later justifying such actions by blaming Congo for insecurity across the region.

Some of Rwanda's staunchest allies, including the United States, have recently cut aid to Rwanda amid the allegations of meddling in Congo. On Friday, the BBC reported that the British government had suspended more than $33 million in aid, which Rwanda desperately needs to keep its government running.

Congo and Rwanda seem to be heading into yet another turbulent, acrimonious phase, with tensions growing by the day. It began this spring when more than 1,000 former rebels who had been integrated into the Congolese Army mutinied. The rebels named themselves the M23 after March 23, 2009, the date of a failed peace deal between the two sides.

Most of the rebel commanders were Tutsi, the same minority ethnic group that dominates politics and the economy in Rwanda, and many of them had fought in the Rwandan Army.

The rebels indicated earlier this week that they would abide by a regional agreement, signed in Kampala, Uganda, last weekend, to leave Goma.

"And we are continuing with that plan," Bertrand Bisimwa, an M23 spokesman, said on Friday.

He said the rebels had begun withdrawing from Goma and planned to station all troops about 12 miles outside the city, as the agreement in Kampala demanded.

But another rebel spokesman contradicted him, telling The Associated Press that the rebels would not be able to leave Goma for "logistical reasons" until Sunday. And it seemed that the rebels were haggling with United Nations peacekeepers over an arsenal of looted ammunition that the rebels wanted to take with them.

Aid workers in Goma said on Friday that they could not see any sign of a rebel pullout.

"I'm not seeing big movements of soldiers," said Richard Nunn, a community services coordinator for Oxfam. "I still see some rebel soldiers in town. It's very difficult to say what's going on right now."

Other residents reported an increase in carjackings and break-ins, saying that Goma was becoming virtually lawless at night. Many people fear that a vacuum could open up when the rebels leave, and that the Congolese Army, which has a history of human rights abuses, could be even worse.

When Congolese troops hastily retreated from Goma last week, Mr. Nunn said, "there was a lot of rape, a lot of insecurity, a lot of extortion and some killings."

"It was a mess, and people are worried about the same kind of thing happening when they come back," he added.

The deal struck in Kampala calls for one battalion of government troops to return to Goma's streets and for a mixed force of rebels, government troops and a yet-to-be-named "neutral force" to guard the airport, a vital commercial hub from which millions of dollars in minerals is exported every month.

It is not clear what is going to happen to the civilian administration in Goma, a city of up to one million people. The rebels have clearly infiltrated the police, with officers who speak the principal Rwandan language strutting around the city last week in uniforms so freshly sewn that loose threads still hung off them. Congolese officers who had been disarmed said that only Tutsi officers were allowed to carry guns.

Most analysts believe that the rebels will officially withdraw from Goma soon, after cleaning out everything of value (there were reports that they robbed the central bank this week). Because the Congolese government is so weak and its army is in such disarray, the rebels are expected to extract a new deal that will give them top positions in the army and an even firmer grip on a large and lucrative swath of eastern Congo.

While the rebels are known for being able administrators -- planting trees in their territory and being far less corrupt than many Congolese officials in similar positions -- they have also earned a reputation for being ruthless. Residents said that at least 10 people in Goma had been assassinated in the past 10 days, with many more disappearances. After one magistrate was struck in the face with a machete and nearly killed last week, United Nations peacekeepers evacuated more than 20 other magistrates.

"We've confirmed several cases of targeted killings by the M23 in and around Goma," said Ms. Sawyer, the Human Rights Watch researcher. "And there are many more allegations, which we're working to verify."

She said the victims included "those who refused to join the M23 or act as informants, individuals deemed uncooperative during looting incidents, and other suspected 'enemies.' "

The rebels have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, said that he had heard the same accusations but that no one had stepped forward with any proof.

"Where are the facts?" he asked.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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