KIBUMBA, Congo (AP) – Rebels loyal to a renegade warlord seized an east Congo army base and the headquarters of a park housing some of the world’s last mountain gorillas in heavy fighting Sunday that sent thousands of civilians fleeing, United Nations (U.N) officials and rebels said.
An unknown number of soldiers, rebels and civilians were killed in the renewed fighting in North Kivu province, according to civilians, who said the onslaught began around 2 a.m.
Government troops raced down the road from the provincial capital of Goma to reinforce a counterattack Sunday morning.
One tank careened into a group of fleeing civilians and killed three teenage boys.
Associated Press reporters who watched the fathers burying their sons in a cabbage patch outside Kibumba could hear the sound of bombing from army tanks about 12 miles from Rumangabo army camp.
U.N. peacekeepers drove from their camp to investigate the deaths but angry civilians threw rocks at their vehicle, forcing them to turn back. The troopers, from India, used riot shields to block the rocks.
Such attacks have become common, with civilians accusing the U.N. peacekeeping mission, the biggest in the world with 18,000 troops, of not fulfilling its mandate to protect the population.
The U.N. force has failed to halt the fighting in this vast region of rural hills and forests, and both sides in the combat also accused the U.N. of siding with the other.
On Wednesday near Kibumba, a hurled rock hit a deputy commander in the Indian force, smashing his nose and forcing his evacuation by helicopter.
“He has had two major surgeries and his life is no longer in danger, but he will be disfigured for the rest of his life,” U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg told the AP.
She said the U.N. had deployed a rapid reaction force at the scene of Sunday’s fighting and was appealing to both sides to cease fire, at least to allow civilians to escape.
“But nobody is listening to us and they keep fighting,” van den Wildenberg said.
Sunday’s attack marked the second time rebels have seized Rumangabo army base since fighting resumed Aug. 28 when rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda went on the offensive, charging government troops had attacked and broken a cease-fire agreed to in January.
Nkunda’s fighters, who claim to be protecting the region’s Tutsi minority, have occupied parts of Virunga National Park for nearly a year, but they attacked the headquarters for the first time before dawn Sunday.
“The seizure of our park headquarters at Rumangabo by rebels is unprecedented, even in all the years of conflict in the region,” park director Emmanuel de Merode said in a statement.
He said more than 50 park rangers had fled into the forest and were trying to make their way on foot to Kibumba.
“The conflict on the ground is chaotic and dangerous, and we cannot allow our rangers to become targets,” de Merode said.
The park is home to 200 of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas, which are considered critically endangered. Ten mountain gorillas were killed last year, including two Silverbacks, causing an international outcry.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 people have fled their homes in just the past two months, joining at least 1.2 million already displaced in east Congo since 2007 when the skirmishes began, the U.N. said.