GOMA, Congo (AP) -- A rebel group believed to be backed by Rwanda seized the strategic, provincial capital of Goma in eastern Congo on Tuesday, home to more than 1 million people as well as an international airport in a development that threatens to spark a new, regional war, officials and witnesses said.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked the lakeside city as the M23 rebels pushed forward on two fronts: toward the city center and along the road that leads to Bukavu, another provincial capital which lies to the south. Civilians ran down sidewalks looking for cover and children shouted in alarm. A man clutched a thermos as he ran.
Thousands of residents fled across the border to Rwanda, the much-smaller nation to the east which is accused of funneling arms and recruits to the M23 rebels.
By early afternoon the gunfire had stopped and M23 soldiers marched down the potholed main boulevards, unimpeded. Their senior commanders, who the United Nations has accused of grave crimes including recruiting child soldiers, summary executions and rape, paraded around the town in all-terrain vehicles, waving to the thousands of people who left their barricaded houses to see them.
The United Nations peacekeepers, known by their acronym MONUSCO, were not helping the government forces during Tuesday's battle because they do not have a mandate to engage the rebels, said Congolese military spokesman Olivier Hamuli, who expressed frustration over the lack of action by the peacekeepers.
"MONUSCO is keeping its defensive positions. They do not have the mandate to fight the M23. Unfortunately, the M23 did not obey the MONUSCO warnings and went past their positions (at the airport). We ask that the MONUSCO do more," he said.
A U.N. spokesman said in New York said that the nearly 1,500 U.N. peacekeepers in Goma held their fire to avoid triggering a battle. The peacekeepers "cannot substitute for the efforts of national forces" in Congo, said spokesman Eduardo del Buey.
On Wednesday the Security Council will review the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo. A resolution adopted Tuesday by the Security Council asks the U.N. secretary-general to recommend possible redeployment, and possible "additional force multipliers."
The resolution approved unanimously by the council imposes targeted sanctions, including a travel ban and assets freeze on the M23 rebel group leadership. But it did not name two countries accused by Congo of supporting the rebels: Rwanda and Uganda.
The council demanded that the M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, disarm and disband, and insisted on the restoration of the crumbing Congolese government authority in the country's turbulent East.
The resolution also calls for an immediate end to external support to the rebels and asks the U.N. secretary-general to report on the allegations of foreign support while expressing its readiness to take appropriate measures.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that the mandate of the U.N. forces in Congo "must be reviewed." Speaking in Paris, he said it is "absurd" that the U.N. has 17,000 peacekeepers in all of Congo but they "couldn't stop several hundred men" in Goma.
The French minister also said a rapprochement between Congo and Rwanda was critical to solving the crisis. Fabius said he's been in touch with officials in both countries.
The rebels are believed to be backed by Rwanda, and to a smaller extent by Uganda, which are accused of equipping them with sophisticated arms, including night vision goggles and 120 mm mortars. Evidence is mounting of the involvement by the neighboring country and on Friday, the United Nations Group of Experts is expected to release its final report, detailing the role the neighboring nations played in the recruitment, financing and arming of the rebel movement, which was born in April.
Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said that Rwandan soldiers had crossed into Goma, hiking over footpaths across a volcano that looms between the two countries.
"Goma is in the process of being occupied by Rwanda," said Mende, speaking from Congo's distant capital of Kinshasa. "We have people who saw the Rwandan army traverse our frontier at the Nyamuragira volcano. They have occupied the airport and they are shooting inside the town. Our army is trying to riposte but this poses an enormous problem for them -- this is an urban center where hundreds of thousands of people live," he said.
A Congolese colonel, who was at the frontline in Goma before the city fell, said that the soldiers he saw were Rwandan. Neither his claim nor Mende's could be independently verified.