Page last updated at 18:46 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Congo exodus as terror spreads

Congolese fleeing into Goma

By Thomas Fessy
BBC News, Goma

Thousands upon thousands of terrified people took to the road on foot for the second time in as many days to flee the advance of Tutsi rebel fighters in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

A wave of humanity surged along under the hot sun - women with mattresses and pots on their backs, men shepherding cows and goats, children looking vulnerable, babies crying.

One woman had collapsed from exhaustion

"We haven't eaten in two days," one family shouted out as our vehicle passed by on the road leading into the lakeside city of Goma.

For the last few nights, they had been camped about 15km (9 miles) north of Goma on either side of the main road.

They had fled fierce battles around Kibumba, 30km away (18 miles) - home to a huge camp for those displaced by the violence that has wreaked havoc in this region over the last year.

The trek took its toll on some - one woman had collapsed from exhaustion, people crowded round her trying to tend to her baby.

As darkness fell, it was not clear where the displaced people would sleep.

People throwing rocks at a UN tank in Goma
People have been angered by the UN's failure to protect them
Retreating army troops had prompted this exodus.

Clearly tense, some soldiers were driving aggressively, others walking through the crowds into Goma.

There have been reports of some soldiers stealing cars and motorbikes to get to Sake, a town to the west of Goma. Others have been looting houses.

The stampede in the town centre led to scenes of chaos as the city's residents bolted home fearing the situation would worsen.

Border shelling

The heavy bombardments at Kibumba could not be heard in the city.

Kibumba lies in a lush green valley at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo volcano, on the edge of Virunga National Park.

Earlier in the day, from the top of hill overlooking the frontline the landscape was breathtaking.

Laurent Nkunda's fighters near Bunagana in eastern DR Congo

But Kibumba itself was deserted - not a civilian could be seen in the valley, only troops moving between positions.

Congolese army soldiers pointed out the flashes of gunfire coming from the Rwandan border, marked by a line of trees.

They then swivelled their tank guns towards the firing and began shelling.

The army accuse the Rwanda government of backing renegade General Laurent Nkunda's rebels. Rwanda strongly denies this.

UN helicopters gunships were also firing at the rebels to hold them off, and UN sources say an attack helicopter has been shot at by Rwandan forces.

In Goma, the UN - which has faced a backlash for failing to protect civilians - was battening down as people flooded in the city.

Many UN tanks were gathered at its headquarters by the airport to organise for removal of all UN civilian personnel to a lakeside compound, a camp for demobilised soldiers.

A UN staffer said it was not an evacuation, but the site had better facilities, including water and food.


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