Rebel forces in eastern Congo said on Wednesday they planned to take control of the whole of the vast central African country after they captured the eastern town of Goma while United Nations peacekeepers looked on.
A spokesman for the M23 rebels, a group widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, said they planned to “liberate” the country, by moving to the town of Bukavu and then marching on the capital, Kinshasa, nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away.
“The journey to liberate Congo has started now … We’re going to move on to Bukavu and then to Kinshasa. Are you ready to join us?” Vianney Kazarama, spokesman for the M23 rebels, told a crowd of more than 1,000 in a stadium in Goma.
The rebels accuse the government of failing to grant them positions in the army, and salaries, in line with a peace deal that ended a previous rebellion in 2009. Alongside that, the rebellion reflects local ethnic conflicts intertwined with Rwanda’s desire to maintain influence over a region on its borders rich in minerals.
The M23 rebellion has aggravated tensions between Congo and Rwanda, which the Congolese government says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing the east’s resources, which include diamonds, gold and coltan, used in mobile phones.
The surprise announcement by the rebels came as diplomats at the United Nations and regional mediators in Central Africa have been seeking to prevent an escalation of hostilities in Congo, a resource-rich country the size of Western Europe.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame were due to meet later on Wednesday after holding three-way talks with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni late on Tuesday, sources in the Ugandan presidency said.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution late on Tuesday condemning the seizure of Goma.
The French government expressed frustration with U.N. peacekeepers, who gave up the battle for the town of 1 million after Congo’s army retreated, saying it was “absurd” that the U.N. force did not protect the city.
Democratic Republic of Congo has accused neighbouring Rwanda, whose army had repeatedly intervened in Congo’s conflicts during the last 15 years, of backing the rebels. Kigali denies the charge and has called for dialogue.
Rebels used local radio and television stations to appeal for calm, but there are fears of human rights abuses and tens of thousands of people have already fled days of fighting between the rebels and U.N.-backed Congolese soldiers.
At the United Nations, the 15-member council approved the resolution drafted by France, releasing a statement that “demands the immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma, the cessation of any further advances by the M23 and that its members immediately and permanently disband and lay down their arms”.
The council expressed “deep concern at reports indicating that external support continues to be provided to the M23, including through troop reinforcement, tactical advice and the supply of equipment, causing a significant increase of the military abilities of the M23, and demands that any and all outside support to the M23 cease immediately”.
While conflict has simmered almost constantly in Congo’s east in recent years, this is the first time Goma has fallen to rebels since foreign occupying armies officially pulled out under peace deals at the end of the most recent 1998-2003 war.
Aid agencies have estimated that 5 million people have died from fighting and conflict-related disease since the 1998 war began.
Hundreds of rebels, who took up arms in April complaining that Kinshasa had failed to comply with the terms of a deal that ended the rebellion of 2009, poured into the lakeside town on Tuesday.
After sporadic gunfire, government troops melted away to the west.
UN peacekeepers who had launched helicopter gunships to back the army did nothing to stop rebels moving into town.
“MONUSCO is 17,000 soldiers, but sadly it was not in a position to prevent what happened,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of the U.N.’s Congo mission.
“It is necessary that the MONUSCO mandate is reviewed.”
But a senior UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal of civilian and military Congolese officials had left a void it could not fill alone.
“We’re not the army of any country, let alone the Congolese army, and it’s not for us to take positions by ourselves to stop a rebel attack or the movement of rebels,” the official said.
“Our job is to protect civilians,” the official added.
Officials in the office of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the regional mediator for the conflict, said he would seek to host a face-to-face meeting between Congo’s President Joseph Kabila and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in Kampala on Wednesday.
Congo’s government on Tuesday rejected the idea of talks with rebels. But Rwanda’s foreign minister said the fall of Goma had shown there was no military solution to the crisis, so Kinshasa had to seek the path of dialogue.
The capture of Goma will be an embarrassment for Kabila, who won re-election late last year in polls that provoked widespread riots.
There were pockets of demonstrations against the fall of Goma in other towns, and Kabila faces the tricky choice between dialogue with the rebels, which will be politically unpopular, and trying to rally his scattered forces in North Kivu.