KAMPALA, Uganda: Heavy shelling has broken a stand-off between Congolese rebels on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma and government soldiers backed by United Nations troops hunkered down inside, as fears rose of a direct military confrontation between the Democratic Republic of Congo and its neighbour Rwanda.
The Congolese government rejected a rebel ultimatum to withdraw from Goma. It accused Rwanda, which a UN panel said has links to the rebels, of sending two battalions across the border into Congo to fight on their behalf and firing a rocket that injured five civilians in Goma.
Congolese army fires at rebel bases
Congolese army attacks rebel positions using mortar and machine-gun fire outside the provincial capital of Goma.
Rwanda said through a military spokesman, Brigadier-General Joseph Nzabamwita, that the accusations were ''absolutely false and diversionary'' and that it was ''exercising restraint''. Rwanda accused the Congolese army of bombing the Rwandan border city of Gisenyi, killing one and injuring two. Rwanda's invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996 was the start of a decade of conflict that left up to 5 million people dead.
A journalist in Goma, Sekombi Katondolo, said that Congolese troops were massing along the border and there were fears of an escalation. ''It's really scary,'' he said. ''We knew it would happen, but we didn't think it would happen all of a sudden.''
Tariq Riebl, who works for Oxfam in Goma, said there had been reports of ''fighting, looting, complete panic'' in Goma and it was unclear whether rebels had control of parts of the city. A UN official across the street from the city's airport said he could hear bombs exploding.
A rebel offer to withdraw from Goma in exchange for government concessions did little to bring the two sides together.
''To allow a peaceful exit,'' a rebel news release on Monday said, ''our Movement demands'' the ''complete demilitarisation of the city and the airport of Goma,'' except for UN peacekeepers, and also ''direct political negotiations with the Movement of March 23''.
Congo's government rejected the ultimatum and turned its attention towards Rwanda. ''We are resisting an aggression that Rwanda is launching against us,'' a spokesman, Lambert Mende, said. ''We have not yet declared war, but we are ready to face it. This is our country, our duty.''
The attack left the UN bewildered and frustrated. The head of the UN peacekeeping office in North Kivu province, where Goma is situated, Hiroute Guebre-Sellasie, said the rebels had managed to get past all the UN positions. ''We are not facing a conventional force,'' he said.
''The presumption by most of us was that there wouldn't be this type of fighting in Goma and there would be a resolution,'' Mr Riebl said. ''It is probably worse than people expected.''
The New York Times; Telegraph, London