Congo rebels agreed Thursday to open humanitarian corridors near besieged Goma, but aid agencies warned of a “catastrophe” as terrified residents recounted tales of rape, looting and murder.
Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whose forces are on the edge of the eastern city, vowed in a letter to the United Nations mission in Kinshasa to allow “humanitarian organisations access to those in need who are behind our lines.”
Few people remained on the streets of Goma, where shops, schools and offices were closed as residents lived in fear of out-of-control remnants of the Congolese army, many of them drunk.
An AFP reporter was shown the bodies of seven civilians, including two women. All were killed overnight by Congolese soldiers on a looting binge, said landlord Jospeh Ndakola.
“Soldiers burst in here in the evening and stayed until four o’clock in the morning,” he said. “They looted all my tenants’ belongings, making them carry their things to their vehicles, and then they came back in to murder them.”
There were also reports from local residents that two women had been raped overnight on the outskirts of Goma in an area called Mosho.
“There is firing here, there are soldiers who are going from door to door to pillage our possessions,” resident Janine Kanyere told AFP by telephone from Goma’s Birere district.
“They are four homes away from me, I am frightened, I do not know what I am going to do,” she said.
Nkunda’s forces have captured several key towns in eastern Congo, sparking a mass exodus from the countryside and risking what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called a humanitarian crisis of “catastrophic dimensions.”
Aid agencies said at least 30,000 internal refugees were trapped between the rebels and UN forces blocking their access to Goma.
UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said thousands of people in Nord-Kivu were streaming into neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.
Around 8,000 people have crossed into Uganda, where they were being housed in schools, churches and other public buildings, while about 1,200 people have entered Rwanda.
The UN refugee agency said Wednesday 45,000 had fled a camp outside the city, panicked by a rushed withdrawal of government forces.
Most headed towards Goma, where officials said the population was fleeing amid scenes of chaos, alarmed by the influx of refugees.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) described the situation as “catastrophic”, while Human Rights Watch called on international leaders to respond before it was too late.
“International leaders who successfully intervened before should act quickly to prevent the crisis in North Kivu from reaching catastrophic proportions,” said senior Congo researcher Anneke Van Woudenberg.
Earlier, Nkunda warned UN forces blocking the way to the refugee-swollen city that they would open fire if the UN tried to halt their advance.
Around 800 peacekeepers from the UN’s MONUC force are the only obstacle to a complete rebel takeover of the city.
Ah, sorry Congo, the world is too busy watching America make a President.