UN helicopters fire on DRC rebels

2012-11-18 22:41
(Supplied)

(Supplied)

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Goma - UN combat helicopters fired on rebels advancing on the key eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma on Sunday, as government troops and top local officials reportedly joined fleeing civilians and the international community voiced deep concern about the fighting.

The M23 rebels, army mutineers whose uprising in April unleashed fresh unrest in the DRC's chronically unstable east, halted their advance just outside Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich region.

Fighting was reported around the airport and the rebels warned they would seize the city if they came under attack from the army, which said it was trying to avoid a "bloodbath" in the area.

"If the FARDC [government forces] attack us, we will take the city," Innocent Kayina, M23 operations commander for the area, told AFP.

A UN peacekeeping spokesperson said in New York that UN attack helicopters had fired cannons and rockets at the rebels, but could not stop their advance and that they were now near Goma airport.

UN forces have supported government troops in the region "including carrying out sorties and firing from four attack helicopter missions that have fired rockets and cannon rounds", spokesperson Kieran Dwyer told AFP, after similar action on Saturday.

Fighting resumed on Thursday, just two days after the United Nations and the United States imposed sanctions on the leader of the M23 group. The rebels are ethnic Tutsi former soldiers who launched a mutiny in April after the failure of a 2009 peace deal.

The EU joined the UN in calling on the rebels to halt their advance, with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton voicing "great concern" about the developments in the area.

"I call on the M23 to immediately stop the military offensive against the city of Goma. Any support to the M23 in violation of the sanctions regime and the arms embargo must stop," she said in a statement.

UN experts have said Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, a charge fiercely denied by both countries.

A UN source on the ground said government troops and local officials were fleeing Goma. A Western military source said the airport had been closed and that hundreds of people had fled.

The UN Security Council held an emergency session on the crisis on Saturday, demanding end to the M23 advance and "that any and all outside support and supply of equipment to the M23 cease immediately".

It also vowed fresh sanctions against M23 leaders and those who help it breach UN sanctions and an arms embargo.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Rwandan President Paul Kagame to "use his influence on M23", said UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

Ladsous said the United Nations could not confirm whether Rwanda was helping the new rebel offensive, but told reporters that M23 "attacking forces are well-equipped and very well-supplied".

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