Below are some questions and answers on the rebels and the threat they pose to Congo and the region.
Who are the rebels?
The 4,000 rebels are led by Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda, who was due to join the national army under the peace deal that ended Democratic Republic of Congo's 1998-2003 war but instead launched a rebellion in 2004.
Nkunda's rebels have fought the army despite elections in 2006. The most serious clashes up till now took place in December 2007, prompting peace talks involving armed groups in Congo's east, culminating in a January 2008 peace deal.
What do the rebels want?
Nkunda initially said he was fighting to defend the minority Congolese Tutsis, particularly against attacks from Rwandan Hutu rebels who are in Congo. Some of the Hutu rebels took place in the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. In calling for direct talks with President Joseph Kabila's government and pledging to "liberate the people of Congo," some analysts say Nkunda has broadened his movement.
Who is he fighting against?
Most fighting has been between Nkunda's rebels and the army. Although there have been many efforts to build a unified force after the war, government troops remain weak.
Alongside the army is the U.N.'s largest peacekeeping force, which has a mandate to support the government militarily as well as protect civilians. Peacekeepers have fought alongside the army but have been criticised for not doing enough.
What is at stake for Congo and the region?
The fighting in the east has underlined the limited progress of Congo's peace process despite the 2006 elections and the subsequent flood of investors into mining and oil projects. The government is struggling to control the vast country, let alone provide basic services to its population of 60 million.
The conflict threatens to take on a regional dimension. Rwanda accuses the Congolese army of collaborating with the Hutu rebels, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, while Kinshasa accuses Kigali of backing Nkunda. Having invaded Congo during previous wars, Rwanda could intervene if it felt threatened.
What is at stake for the United Nations?
The mission in Congo is the world body's largest but its 17,600 soldiers are stretched across a country the size of Western Europe. While they are criticised by the army for not doing enough to fight the rebels, Nkunda says U.N. bombardments of his positions by helicopter gunships make them fair targets.
The U.N. has vowed to defend Goma but the ability to fight off a rebel attack may be limited by the need to ensure security for thousands of civilians who have fled into the town. Troop contributing countries have imposed strict rules of engagement for their soldiers. Analysts say a failure to defend the town would call into question the mission's future role.
(Writing by David Lewis; editing by Alistair Thomson and Angus MacSwan)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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