Hundreds of people protested in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma on Thursday against President Joseph Kabila, accusing him of incompetence in efforts to neutralize rebels who have long plagued the region.
The United Nations voiced concerns about recent clashes and said it was prepared to intervene if necessary.
Heavy fighting erupted between the army and the M23 rebel group on Sunday 12 km (7.5 miles) northeast of Goma, ending several weeks of relative calm and reviving memories of an attack in November when the Tutsi-led insurgents briefly seized the city of 1 million people.
After four days of clashes, during which the army pushed the rebels several kilometers further from the city, the front line was quiet on Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “deeply concerned about the latest round of hostilities initiated by the M23 movement north of Goma,” Ban’s press office said in a statement.
He said the United Nations’ MONUSCO peacekeeping force was not involved in the fighting, though he added it was ready to get involved.
“The mission remains on high alert and is prepared to intervene, including through the Force Intervention Brigade, should the fighting threaten civilians, particularly in Goma and in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps,” it said.
The so-called Intervention Brigade is a new kind of peacekeeping force the United Nations is now deploying with a tough mandate to aggressively take on rebel groups to try to end the decades-old conflict in Congo’s mineral-rich east in which millions have been killed since the 1990s.
The 3,000-strong Intervention Brigade has begun patrols but has not yet entered into combat.
During the demonstrations in Goma, police fired teargas to disperse the crowd from the center of Goma where protesters blocked roads and displayed a sign saying “Kabila Must Go”. Shops and businesses were shuttered.
Even after the rebels were repelled, “there were rumors circulating this morning that the government was going to replace senior army officers,” said local journalist Charles Lwanga. “The population staged peaceful demonstrations, trying to block the airport and the port.”
Lambert Mende, spokesman for the Kinshasa government, said it had no plans to replace the military command in Goma and that the rumor had been circulated by M23 itself.
Some Goma residents accused members of MONUSCO of blocking the path of the Congolese army as it sought to push northward to overrun M23 positions.