GOMA, Congo (AP) — United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived on Thursday in Goma, eastern Congo, hours after a rebel group fighting government forces nearby said they would impose a cease-fire to allow the visit to proceed.
The M23 rebels and the Congolese army began fighting three days ago just north of Goma, ending a nearly six-month-long truce.
Last November the rebels handed both the government and the United Nations a humiliating blow when they succeeded in invading Goma, a city of roughly 1 million that is both strategically important and a major population center. The rebels retreated 10 days later after intense wrangling by the international community, including diplomatic pressure on Rwanda, which is accused of arming and financing the rebels.
Rebel spokesman Amani Kabasha said by telephone that they had declared the cease-fire in order to not disturb Ban's visit. "We will not fight today to allow Ban Ki-moon's visit to successfully take place. We also want to give peace a chance and ask the government to come back to the negotiating table in Kampala," he said.
Ban arrived at Goma's airport on Thursday morning, his second day in Congo after a visit Wednesday to the country's distant capital, Kinshasa. There he met Congolese President Joseph Kabila, and promised that the international community would stand with Congo.
The U.N. came under scrutiny last year after the thousands of peacekeepers stationed in and around Goma simply stood by as the rebels marched into the city. They later claimed that their U.N. mandate does not allow them to engage militarily unless civilians are in imminent danger, and civilians were not initially being targeted when the rebels seized the city.
The Security Council has recently authorized the deployment of a new "intervention brigade" which has a mandate that will allow them to engage and fight the rebels, though only around 100 members of the new force have arrived so far.
"The population in the east have suffered too much," Ban said on Wednesday. "The time has come to address the root causes of the conflict."
Ban's visit remained uncertain up until his arrival on Thursday due to the security situation. The last round of fighting between the rebels and government troops stopped at about 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Four people died Wednesday when at least two rockets were fired into the Goma neighborhood of Ndosho. United Nations peacekeepers said the rockets were fired by the M23 from their position in Kibati Heights, around 15 kilometers (9 miles) away. In just three days of fighting roughly 30,000 people have fled the Mugunga refugee camp, which was caught in the rebels' crosshairs, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Since then, the rebels have respected the truce, though the fighting is expected to start anew once the U.N. chief leaves.
The M23 is a rebel group that was created a year ago in April following the defection of hundreds of soldiers from the army. The rebels are backed by Rwanda and Uganda, according to several U.N. reports.
They agreed to retreat from Goma last November, after forcing Congo to enter talks with them. The talks held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, have stalled in recent weeks. Rebels accuse the government of being unwilling to negotiate, as they wait for the U.N. intervention brigade to arrive this summer.
The intervention brigade is part of a larger peace deal signed in Addis Ababa in February between the U.N. and 11 countries in the region. Ban has been intimately involved in the peace process, coming to Addis Ababa to sign the deal.
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