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New violence erupts near Goma in eastern Congo

Internally displaced Congolese wait for food to be distributed by the UN at the Mugunga 3 camp outside the eastern Congolese town of Goma, Sunday Dec. 2, 2012.

Jerome Delay/AP

Within hours of the rebel withdrawal from Goma, armed men were attacking a refugee camp near this city, raping and looting.

The new violence, along with another reported attack on Rwanda by a militia group near Goma, was a reminder that eastern Congo remains a powder keg of unresolved conflicts and heavily armed factions, despite the much-touted pullout from Goma by the M23 rebels on Saturday.

All the ingredients for future wars are still here. Congo's army, which fled from Goma on Nov. 20, is humiliated and belligerent. The well-financed rebel fighters are just 15 kilometres from Goma, threatening to recapture it at any time. Negotiations between the two sides are so complex that they can easily fall apart. And the prize for all sides – the mineral wealth of the region – is still as enticing as ever.

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While Goma was relatively calm on Sunday, with traffic beginning to return to normal levels, many people were convinced that the Rwandan-backed rebels are still in control of the city. "We're very afraid," said Patrick Kanamule, a cellphone vendor on a Goma street.

"We've noticed some of the rebels removing their military uniforms and putting on civilian clothes," he said. "These are not good people."

The identity of the gunmen who attacked the Mugunga 3 camp, where about 30,000 displaced people live, is still unknown. But a spokesman for the United Nations agency, UNICEF, said the attackers were wearing military uniforms as they stormed the camp, where they looted the impoverished residents and raped a number of women.

Rwanda, meanwhile, said 10 rebels from a Congo-based Hutu militia, known as the FDLR, crossed into Rwanda on Sunday and attacked a camp of six game wardens, killing one of them. It was the second alleged attack on Rwanda by the FDLR in the past six days, adding another layer of violence to the region.

Goma, a mineral-trading hub and strategic city of a million people, is quickly sliding into a security vacuum, guarded only by a few hundred Congolese policemen, along with the UN peacekeepers who were unable to stop the rebel capture of the city last month.

Under a deal negotiated in Uganda, the rebels and the Congolese army will each have a company of 100 fighters at the Goma airport as observers, and the army will also be permitted to send a battalion of 600 soldiers back to its home base in the city. But the army forces are too small to prevent the rebels from retaking the city if they choose.

The rebels sang victory songs as they withdrew from Goma on Saturday. They raced northward in a ragtag convoy of looted vehicles, flaunting their war booty. The war-wrecked road from Goma to the rebel capital, Rutshuru, was clogged with dozens of rebel cars and trucks, while a long line of their foot soldiers trudged out of the city, carrying ammunition boxes and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

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"We are pulling out, but we can come back at any time," Benjamin Mbonimpa, the rebel administrator of Rutshuru territory, said then. "We have thousands of tons of ammunition."

The Congo army, too, is talking tough. "I'm going to ask our leaders for permission to wage war," said Congo's newly appointed head of land forces, Lieutenant-General Francois Olenga Tete, as he toured the front lines last week. "We don't want more negotiations. It's war that will bring peace to Congo."

But no matter how aggressive their rhetoric, the Congolese army is severely weakened by its internal corruption and incompetence. Among its ranks are an estimated 10,000 "ghost soldiers" who don't actually exist, yet draw salaries that are pocketed by their officers, who behave as businessmen rather than soldiers. Corruption has damaged the army's supply chains so badly that its soldiers often cannot hold captured ground and must retreat because of a lack of food or water or ammunition.

This weakness, in turn, emboldens the militia groups that prey on civilians across eastern Congo. And because the underlying weaknesses of the Congolese army are unlikely to be solved, the militia groups will continue to thrive.

Another explosive ingredient in eastern Congo's powder keg is the humiliation of Goma's rulers, who had to flee the city and watch their homes ransacked and their vehicles stolen. Among many Goma people, the desire for revenge will be strong, and the anger at Congo president Joseph Kabila will be powerful.

Jo Lusi, a famed surgeon in Goma who co-founded the HEAL Africa hospital, said the rebels "dishonored" the people of Goma and treated them like "shadows" rather than humans. "Among Africans, that's the greatest shame," Dr. Lusi said. "Until our deaths, we will be ashamed. We have been diminished."

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