KILIMANYOKA, Congo (AP) — Rebels advanced toward Congo's eastern provincial capital of 600,000 people Tuesday, sending tens of thousands of terrified civilians into a makeshift shelter as Congolese troops and U.N. tanks retreated.
The sudden influx tripled the size of the camp in Kibati in a matter of hours, said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. A hundred refugees a day, most of them women and children, also were fleeing across the border into Uganda, that country's Red Cross said.
In Kibati, a few miles from the front line, young men lobbed rocks Tuesday at three U.N. tanks also heading away from the battlefield. The U.N.'s peacekeeping mission is the agency's biggest in the world, with 17,000 troops.
"What are they doing? They are supposed to protect us," said Jean-Paul Maombi, a 31-year-old nurse from Kibumba.
The chaos in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars. Renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda has threatened to take Goma despite calls from the U.N. Security Council for him to respect a cease-fire brokered by the U.N. in January.
Nkunda charges that the Congolese government has not protected his minority Tutsi tribe from a Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping perpetrate the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Half a million Tutsis were slaughtered.
Nkunda's ambitions have expanded since he launched a new onslaught on Aug. 28; he now declares he will "liberate" all of Congo, a country the size of Western Europe with vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other resources. Congo's mineral wealth helped fuel back-to-back wars from 1997 to 2003.
The U.N. says more than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes in the last two months, joining 1.2 million displaced in previous conflicts in the east. Outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea have killed dozens in camps, compounding the misery.
On Monday, peacekeepers in attack helicopters fired at the rebels in an attempt to stop them taking Kibumba, a village on the main road 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Goma. But fleeing civilians say the fighters overran Kibumba anyway.
The rebels retaliated by firing a missile at one U.N. combat helicopter Monday, but missed, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg said. Several foreign aid workers have fled fighting from Rutshuru as rebels closed in on the town, 45 miles (73 kilometers) north of Goma, she said. The U.N. was trying to evacuate the workers from Rutshuru, where the rebels are fighting on the second of four fronts.
Doctors Without Borders said essential medical staff who were not evacuated from Rutshuru Hospital said they could hear heavy artillery combat close by Tuesday. They said they had treated 70 war wounded since Sunday but most patients had fled the hospital.
U.N. efforts to halt Nkunda's rebellion are complicated by the country's rugged terrain, dense tropical forests that roll over hills and mountains with few roads.
On Tuesday, a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said rebels in civilian clothes made several attempts to infiltrate Goma, but U.N. peacekeepers spotted them and forced them to return.
Also Tuesday, a U.N. helicopter gunship patrolled over Kilimanyoka, seven miles (10 kilometers) north of Goma. Rebel spokesman Bertrand Bisimwa said he expected the helicopters soon would attack their front line, which he said is within 12 miles (19 kilometers)of Goma.
The U.N. spokeswoman said U.N. attack helicopters were trying to impede the rebels and they appear to have succeeded in part Tuesday. In late afternoon, about 200 government soldiers were nearly two miles (3 kilometers) closer to the rebels than the line of the troops that retreated. They were being resupplied from a truck loaded with rocket-propelled grenades.
The chief U.N. mandate is to protect the population. But since the peace deal it also is supposed to help the Congolese army disarm and repatriate Hutu militiamen — by force if necessary.
But Bisimwa, the rebel spokesman, claimed Tuesday the Congolese army has abandoned dozens of its positions to Hutu militiamen.
"It's the Hutus who are on the front line and whom we are fighting, not the army," he said. U.N. peacekeepers "leave us no choice but to fight on."
Nkunda long has charged that Congolese soldiers fight alongside the militia of Hutus, an ethnic majority of about 40 percent in the region.
Some 800 Hutu militiamen have voluntarily returned to Rwanda, the U.N. says, but the fighters recruit and coerce Congolese Hutu children and young men into their ranks daily — far outnumbering those who have returned home.
Civil leaders led by Jason Luneno said if U.N. peacekeepers cannot halt the rebel advance, the peacekeepers should leave Congo and "the people will descend into the streets to demand the government resign."
Tensions also are high on the diplomatic front. Congo this week repeated charges that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government is sending troops across the border to reinforce Nkunda. Rwanda denies the charges and the U.N. says they are unfounded.