A Congolese colonel, who was at the frontline in Goma before the city fell, said that the soldiers he saw were Rwandan. Neither his claim nor Mende's could be independently verified.
Congo's President Joseph Kabila flew to Uganda Tuesday for talks with President Yoweri Museveni, a Ugandan government spokesman confirmed. The official spoke in Kampala on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge the information.
M23 rebel spokesman Col. Vianney Kazarama confirmed that they had taken the airport and the city. "We are now inside the city of Goma," he said.
Goma, a city of low-lying buildings, many topped by rusted corrugated roofs, was last threatened by rebels in 2008 when fighters from the now-defunct National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP, stopped just short of the city. Their backs to the wall, the Congolese government agreed to enter into talks with the CNDP and a year later, on March 23, 2009, a peace deal was negotiated calling for the CNDP to put down their arms in return for being integrated into the national army.
The peace deal fell apart this April, when up to 700 soldiers, most of them ex-CNDP members, defected from the army, claiming that the Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the deal. Like in 2008, they again advanced toward Goma. This time, the city fell and the disastrous consequences for the population were already on display.
At a municipal hospital, 19-year-old Nene Lumbulumbu described how she was cleaning her house, when she was hit by a stray bullet in the torso. A father stood over his little girl's bed, clutching an X-ray showing the bullet lodged in her chest. He had sent her to fetch water in this city where most live without running water. She was brought back by neighbors, after being hit by a bullet.
The hospital was treating children whose arms were sheared off by exploding shells, and teenagers paralyzed from the neck down. Hospital director Justin Lussy said the injuries were just the tip of the iceberg.
"Regional and international actors must now prevent this turning into a new regional war," said the International Crisis Group in a statement. "The past week has shown history repeating itself in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, with the same tragic consequences for civilians in the region."
If the rebels succeed in taking Bukavu, it will mark the biggest gain in rebel territory since at least 2003, when Congo's last war with its neighbors, including Rwanda and Uganda, ended.
Jean-Claude Bampa, who lives near the road to Sake, the first town on the drive to Bukavu, spoke on the telephone over loud gunfire in the background. "I can hear gunshots everywhere, it is all around my home," he said on Tuesday morning. "We are stuck inside and are terrified. I pray this will be over soon."
Associated Press West Africa bureau chief Rukmini Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley in Paris and Peter James Spielmann at the United Nations contributed to this support.
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