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Civilians caught in crossfire of Congo rebellion as regional leaders meet, a UN chief visits
KIWANJA, Congo (AP) ¯¯¯ It was before dawn when the bullets started flying. One of heavy caliber smashed into and through the front bedroom of the Ntibatekereza family's home, slammed through a utility room and exited out a third wall, leaving a hole so large that the sun floods in.
When family matriarch Charlotte Ntibatekereza went to investigate, she found her 4-year-old grandson and 29-year-old son dead, and her daughter-in-law nursing a mangled arm.
They are the latest victims of a 3-month-old rebellion of the M23 Movement in eastern Congo that has killed an unknown number of people, wounded more than 500 and forced some 280,000 people from their homes, including tens of thousands across borders into Rwanda and Uganda.
Numerous diplomatic initiatives are under way to try to contain the latest mayhem to hit the Central African country whose vast mineral riches have proved a curse that attracts a plethora of foreign rebels and local militias.
On Monday, leaders from 11 countries forming the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region gather in neighboring Kampala, Uganda, to discuss a new plan calling for a neutral international force to deploy in eastern Congo to get rid of all the fighters. They have suggested forming the army in collaboration with the African Union and the United Nations, which already has the world's largest peacekeeping force of nearly 20,000 soldiers and police in Congo.
At the conference are Rwanda and Uganda, which both have been implicated in the rebellion. Rwanda has denied charges made in a damning U.N. report that it helped create, arm and support the M23 rebels and sent its own troops to fight alongside them. Uganda has denied that its troops also are fighting with the rebels, saying last week that it is investigating reports that some rebels are wearing Ugandan army uniforms and one rebel commander is driving a vehicle associated with the Ugandan armed forces.
On Sunday, AP reporters counted four vehicles with Ugandan license plates, including two minivans filled with heavily armed rebels, between Kiwanja and Rutshuru, a key trading town near the borders with Uganda and Rwanda.
Also Monday, U.N. humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos starts a three-day trip to Congo to assess the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
It is to include a visit to the Rutshuru district of the Ntibatekereza family, whose loss occurred during a July 25 battle between M23 rebels allied with a local militia and Congolese troops backed by U.N. peacekeepers, and allegedly fighting alongside rebels of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda.
The M23 rebellion has brought some of the fiercest fighting in years to eastern Congo. In the battle that engulfed the Ntibatekereza home, the rebels also took a string of towns leading north from the commercial capital of Goma to Rutshuru. They also hold the border town of Bunagana, an important mineral transit point on the frontier with Uganda.
Ntibatekereza recounted her woes Sunday as she stood inside her home pocked by bullet holes in the Mabungo neighborhood of Kiwanja, an area that that has suffered more than most. In a 2008 rebellion led by some of the same players now leading the M23, some 70 people were massacred in Mabungo. Nobody has ever been held to account.
Ntibatekereza on Sunday asked if those responsible for the deaths of her son and grandson would pay ever for their crimes, but the question was asked rhetorically, as if she never expects an answer, let alone justice in this country where impunity reigns.
As she spoke, one arthritic hand grasped a home-hewed wooden cane, the other played with rosary prayer beads hanging from her neck.
"My son was a motorcyle-taximan and the sole breadwinner in our home. My daughter won't be able to work the fields for months. I am crippled with arthritis. What is to become of us and the children?" she said.