Friday, August 29, 2008

Rebels rearming and clashing with army in east of DR Congo near gorilla park - UN has 17,000 peacekeepers in DR Congo

Friday August 28, 2008 (BBC) report - excerpts:
Rebels and army clash in DR Congo

Clashes have erupted between fighters loyal to rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and the army in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN says.

Both sides have blamed each other for starting the fighting, which lasted several hours.

The UN mission told the BBC 18 rebels had been admitted to hospital, while AFP news agency said 50 government soldiers were also receiving treatment.

It is the heaviest fighting in the east since a January peace deal.

Earlier this month, US and European Union diplomats warned that the situation in eastern DR Congo was becoming increasingly tense and that all sides were rearming.

"They are mutually claiming the other side started it. At the moment it's very difficult to confirm who has started it," UN mission spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Paul Dietrich told the BBC.

Lt-Col Dietrich said the UN believed that Mr Nkunda - a renegade general - was trying to expand the rebels' zone of influence.

Reports earlier this month indicated that Gen Nkunda was touring his area, strengthening his defences and recruiting fresh forces.
The UN has 17,000 peacekeepers in DR Congo.
Full report 'Rebels and army clash in DR Congo' (last updated at 16:21 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 17:21 UK)
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Friday August 29, 2008 news report - source unknown (hat tip XXPANTHAXX at forum) -
Congo rebels, army clash near Congo gorilla park

KINSHASA, Congo - Rebels and the army fought one of their fiercest battles in eastern Congo this year on Thursday, exchanging machine-gun and mortar fire all day outside a national park that is home to some of the world's last mountain gorillas. U.N.-funded Radio Okapi reported at least four people were killed and several wounded. At least one of the dead was an army soldier, it said. The U.N. mission told the British Broadcasting Corp. that 18 rebels were injured.

Despite a January cease-fire deal, rebels led by Laurent Nkunda fought army units in the village of Matebe, as well as Gasiza and Kalomba, both located on the outskirts of Virunga National Park, U.N. spokesman Col. Jean-Paul Dietrich said.

"Almost the entire population of the area has fled," Dietrich said, adding that army forces had put attack helicopters into the skies and were reinforcing their positions.

Army spokesman Col. Delphin Kahimbi confirmed the army was organizing a counteroffensive. He blamed rebels for starting the latest conflict. Rebels could not be reached for comment.

Nkunda's fighters have occupied the southern sector of gorilla-inhabited Virunga National Park for about 12 months, keeping rangers from patrolling the area.

Emmanuel de Merode, who directs Virunga National Park for the Congolese Wildlife Authority, said in a statement that the "latest escalation of the conflict undermines our efforts to resume our work in the gorilla sector."

"It is almost one year to the day since this conflict started, but we are as determined as ever to get back in," Merode said, adding that mortar and grenade explosions have boomed around the park since before dawn. "It is critical that we know the status of the mountain gorillas."

Though sporadic gunfights have broken out in North Kivu province this year, much of the area has been calm since a January peace deal ended a wave of major skirmishes in the same region late last year.

"The fighting has been tied for weeks to the desire to control certain areas of land by one party or another," Dietrich said. Nkunda's rebels "are trying to expand their zone of influence" and the army is trying to stop them, he said.

Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, and is still coping with the effects of a 1998-2002 war and Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which saw millions of hungry refugees — including Rwandan militias who remain today — spill across the border. Despite its vast mineral wealth, most people remain deeply poor and desperate, and the gorillas in the Virung reserve are competing with local villagers for land.

Nkunda's fighters, believed to have close ties to neighboring Rwanda, first rose up against the government after the broader war ended in 2002. He claims they fight to protect minority Tutsis from Hutus and other groups.

Only about 700 mountain gorillas remain in the world, an estimated 380 of them in a range of volcanoes straddling Congo's borders with Uganda and Rwanda. Only 72 are believed to live on the Congo side of the border. Ten of them were killed last year.

Nkunda's rebels have been accused by wildlife officials of attacking gorillas in the past, but since last year they have taken tourists and some journalists on unauthorized visits to the rare animals.

Virunga National Park is located in a lawless swath of eastern Congo that the country's government has struggled to bring under control for years. Established in 1925 as Africa's first national park, it was classified as a U.N. World Heritage Site in 1979. 
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Copy of Gorilla Protection blog post and photos published by gorilla Thursday August 28, 2008:
War erupts around the Gorilla Sector

Heavy fighting broke out at 3.30am today between rebels and the army around the Gorilla Sector, specifically near the patrol post of Bukima and going down toward Rumangabo park station. The situation had been calm for some months but all this has just changed.

This is Samantha. I was at Rumangabo this morning with Diddy, Innocent, Balemba, Pierre and others and you could hear the mortars being fired not so far away and reverberating through the hills.

DR Congo war erupts around the Gorilla Sector

This is taken from the main house at Rumangabo station. In the distance (just) you can see 2 buildings - that is a military camp that the rebels are targeting. Beyond the buildings is Sabinyo, a volcano that straddles DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. It is towards the buildings and to the right that the fighting is taking place.

It is not clear who attacked who first - ie the rebels attacked the army first or vice versa. But one thing is for sure, the army is sending in major reinforcements.

When we left Rumangabo heading toward Goma we came across a convoy of military vehicles carrying all kinds of heavy weaponry and soldiers. Weapons are not my area of expertise, but there was definitely a wide array on display of all shapes and sizes - and also something called Stalin’s organ, a weapon with multiple tubes that looks like an organ and presumably fires a rocket from each hole.

DR Congo war erupts around the Gorilla Sector

This was one of the tanks we passed on our way back.

I just spoke to Diddy and the bombing continues as I write. There is one thing for certain though. If we can hear the bombing and mortars, so can the gorillas. If human populations around this area feel threatened, so do the gorillas. I will keep you up to date.

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