Congolese government forces backed by U.N. troops recaptured a provincial airport from rebels on Monday after heavy fighting in which three U.N. workers and several soldiers and police officers were killed, officials said.
Sunday’s surprise attack on Mbandaka, capital of northern Equateur province, was part of a spreading insurgency that began over fishing rights and illustrated the central African nation’s continued dependence on peacekeepers who are expected to start withdrawing in June.
“We have taken back control of the airport. It is now in our hands,” General Janvier Mayanga told Reuters by telephone from Mbandaka. “Several soldiers and police have been killed,” he said, without giving details.
Three U.N. personnel, including a Ghanaian peacekeeper and a South African pilot, were killed in the fighting, as well as four government soldiers, two police officers and nine rebels, according to a statement issued by the prime minister’s office.
Enyele rebels, who are from the remote north and are not linked to higher-profile rebel conflicts in the east, attacked the town on Sunday and seized the airport where the world’s largest U.N. mission has aircraft stationed.
Mayanga said the rebels, who mounted a series of ambushes around the airport, fled into the surrounding forest and the army pursued them. Peacekeepers from the U.N. mission, known as MONUC, took part in the counter-attack, he said.
The U.N. mission, which has grown into the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, has been central to efforts to pacify Congo since a 1998-2003 war in which millions of people were killed.
The mission is under government pressure to begin withdrawing in June when the vast state celebrates 50 years of independence from Belgian colonial rule, and to leave completely by 2011 when elections are due.
Human rights groups have said MONUC’s withdrawal could spell disaster for civilians caught up in the conflicts.
The violence may also discourage foreign investment in a country that depends heavily on mining revenue and is trying to persuade foreign oil majors to develop its oil reserves.
PROVINCE STARVED OF GOVERNMENT
Most of the nearly 22,000 U.N. peacekeepers are based in east Congo, where they are helping the government try to oust Rwandan Hutu rebels. The stretched force also faces local rebellions and Ugandan rebels in the remote northeast.
“As long as insecurity persists throughout (Congo), and the Congolese government and military are incapable of resolving crises such as Equateur independent of international support, the drawdown of the U.N. mission remains premature,” advocacy group Refugees International said in a report last week.
The organisation said more than 200,000 people had fled the violence since a tribal dispute over fishing rights flared in October and a local witchdoctor led an attack on Dongo, 100 km (62 miles) north of Mbandaka, killing hundreds.
Equateur’s Vice Governor Vincent Mokako said Mbandaka had been taken by surprise on Easter Sunday when 100-150 fighters attacked as people were attending mass, and that the civilian population was still hiding in its houses on Monday.
Analysts said a long-standing row between the Enyele, a sub-tribe of the Lobala, and the Boba, may have been hijacked by groups trying to foment trouble in the region, which was once favoured by government but is now an opposition stronghold.
“The place has been starved of any government support since Mobutu was kicked out,” said a diplomat, referring to Congo’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was from the province and poured money into it for decades until he was ousted in 1997.
Since Mobutu, the region’s highest-profile politician has been former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, now awaiting trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court.