KINSHASA — U.N. peackeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are defending their military performance after the force failed to stop rebels from seizing the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday. Officials say the rebels had more fighters and firepower than expected.
Congo's M23 rebels held a rally in Goma on Wednesday at which their spokesman, Vianney Kazarama, announced that the movement’s next objective is Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province. They have already captured the town of Sake some 20 kilometers from Goma.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, says it will continue to back up the Congolese army as it has done over the past few days. The U.N units in territory now controlled by the M23 have stayed there, except for the helicopters.
Many Congolese are asking how the combined forces of the Congolese army and MONUSCO failed to keep the rebels out of Goma. France said Tuesday it was "absurd" that the U.N. peacekeepers could not stop the rebels, and has called for a review of the force's mandate.
The M23 were thought to have only about 2,500 fighters in total, while the Congolese army, or FARDC, was believed to have 30,000 soldiers in North Kivu including 7,000 dug into positions defending Goma.
Backing up the FARDC is MONUSCO, which has 17,000 troops and has been costing one and a half billion dollars a year.
MONUSCO’s latest report details the fire support it gave to the army between November 15 and November 19 to try to stop the M23 from reaching Goma.
The report says MONUSCO’s attack helicopters fired 500 rockets, four missiles and a large quantity of other ammunition.
And that wasn’t all. The mission’s military spokesman, Colonel Felix Basse, told VOA that after the FARDC was pushed back to its second line of defence at Kamahoro, the MONUSCO contingent’s armored vehicles threw everything they had at the rebels.
"At Kamahoro we put the whole fire of our VRDMs - that’s an armored vehicle - we put the whole fire on the advance of M23, so we used other assets than helicopters," he said.
The mission took casualties defending Goma - two South African peacekeepers were wounded. But its firepower, with that of the army, wasn’t enough.
"Keep in mind one thing: the M23 starts its attack at around 4.15 am - night-time, we can say - and they conducted the attack on three axes, with heavy artillery fire, which was not expected, based on the intelligence (we had)," added Colonel Basse.
MONUSCO estimates that the M23 deployed 3,000 fighters in its offensive, and they had night vision equipment as well as heavy artillery, both of which analysts believe must have been supplied by an external power.
Two U.N. experts reports have accused Rwanda of supplying recruits, arms, ammunition, equipment and even direct military reinforcements to the M23 - accusations which Rwanda denies.
The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to impose sanctions against M23 leaders. The French-sponsored resolution condemns all foreign support for the group.
MONUSCO has a brigade around Goma responsible for the whole area of North Kivu province, and that brigade will stay there, the mission says.
In Goma town, the mission had around 1,500 men when the M23 attacked. The interim head of mission, General Abdallah Wafy, told VOA why the force in Goma was not larger.
"In order to protect the population our battalions have to be broken into small companies to be closer to the civilians," he said. "It’s very difficult for us to be all over the country in the east and to be concentrated again in Goma. So we have some choices, and this is the dilemma for a peacekeeping operation like ours. "
Wafy said he hadn’t yet received reports of grave human rights abuses by the M23 since it took Goma. But he warned that the rebels would be held responsible if this occurred.