Rebels vowing to take Congo's eastern provincial capital advanced toward Goma on Tuesday, sending tens of thousands fleeing. Chaos gripped a separate area as government soldiers fired on civilians and aid workers trying to escape, the top U.N. envoy said.
Alan Doss said peacekeepers were forced to "respond," apparently meaning they shot at troops who are supposed to be their allies, after the soldiers opened fire on those trying to leave Rutshuru, a strategic town north of Goma. He vowed to keep Rutshuru and other towns out of rebel hands.
"We are going to remain there, and we are going to act against any effort to take over a city or major population center by force," he told reporters in New York in a videoconference.
U.N. helicopter gunships were being used on fronts near Rutshuru and Kilimanyoka, which is about 7 miles north of Goma. They were hampered by rebels' use of civilians as shields, U.N. spokeswoman Sylvia van den Wildenberg said.
The rebels, loyal to renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, also are fighting around Rugari, a town between Goma and Rutshuru, as well as northwest of Goma around Sake - using several fronts to scatter government forces and U.N. peacekeepers.
By late afternoon Tuesday, it appeared the use of the gunships was paying off. About 200 government soldiers were nearly 2 miles closer to the rebels than the line of the troops that retreated. They were being resupplied from a truck loaded with rocket-propelled grenades.
Aid agencies in Rutshuru said their workers could hear bombs exploding as the rebels closed in, and angry and frightened civilians and soldiers blocked their evacuation by U.N. peacekeepers.
The mob looted humanitarian centers and the belongings of about 50 trapped aid workers in Rutshuru, said Ivo Brandau, a spokesman for the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA.
Brandau said tens of thousands of civilians were fleeing that town, heading north and east toward the Ugandan border. Rutshuru had a population of about 30,000 residents and the same number of refugees.
Doctors Without Borders said its doctors and nurses trapped at Rutshuru Hospital had treated 70 war wounded since Sunday, but most patients had fled the hospital.
Meanwhile, a sudden influx of an estimated 30,000 people tripled in a matter of hours the size of a camp in Kibati, a few miles from the front line, said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.
"It's chaos up there," Redmond said from Geneva, citing U.N. staff in Congo. "These crowds of people coming down from the north have already started turning up there."
In Kibati, 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.
The unrest in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering hatreds left over from the Rwandan genocide and the country's unrelenting civil wars.