NAIROBI: Rebel soldiers are close to capturing the largest city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, forcing tens of thousands of civilians and international aid staff to flee.
Fighting that began last week flared into serious clashes on Sunday between the M23 rebel movement and the Congolese army north of Goma, the de facto aid capital of the country's war-ravaged east. Most Western aid agency staff were ordered over the border into Rwanda, and operations to help up to 500,000 people who fled earlier fighting were under threat.
In Goma, the streets were empty apart from isolated Congolese army units patrolling in tanks. There were several reports that most government soldiers had fled the city.
''We are very, very afraid of what can happen tonight,'' said one Goma resident, a motorcycle taxi driver who gave his name only as Felicien. ''The army has deserted us, the city's leaders have deserted us, the United Nations has deserted us. All we can think to do is to lock the door and pray to God that no one comes to steal from us or harm us. The children have been crying all day.''
UN attack helicopters fired at the rebels but failed to stop the advance on Goma, a UN spokesman said.
Goma woke on Sunday to the sounds of heavy gunfire as the M23 forces fought their way south to just three kilometres north of the city's outer suburbs. UN forces and the Congo army were ''defending'' near the airport, the UN peacekeeping spokesman, Kieran Dwyer, said.
The M23 is largely made up of soldiers from an earlier rebel group that in 2008 almost overran Goma, before a peace deal which has proven contentious.
It is led by Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, and Sultani Makenga, who is accused of ordering the conscription of child soldiers to his forces.
A report for the UN Security Council earlier this year accused Rwanda and Uganda of funding or supporting the rebels, prompting donors including Britain to freeze aid. Both countries deny the allegations.
The Security Council has called for a halt to foreign support for the rebels.
The UN peacekeeping chief, Herve Ladsous, said the UN could not confirm whether Rwanda was helping the rebel offensive but told reporters M23 ''attacking forces are well-equipped and very well-supplied''. Human Rights Watch said that it has ''credible reports'' that Rwandan troops have crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo since Thursday. Rwanda has denied any involvement. Its foreign minister has called for a halt to the fighting.
The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, expressed ''deep concern'' at the worsening violence and called on rebel forces to engage in talks.
''I am deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo caused by the military activities of the 23 March Movement (M23),'' Mr Hague said. ''I strongly condemn the M23's advance towards Goma and call on it immediately to desist from further violence.''
He urged those with influence over M23 ''to call on them to stop fighting and not to provide them any external support''. Britain has warned any nationals in Goma to leave immediately.
Telegraph, London; Agence France-Presse