Rebels widely believed to be backed by Rwanda claimed control of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday, parading through the frontier city of one million people past UN peacekeepers who did nothing to stop them.
Hundreds of fighters from the M23 group entered Goma after days of clashes with UN-backed Congolese soldiers that forced tens of thousands of residents to flee. A senior UN source said international peacekeepers had given up defending the city after the Congolese troops evacuated.
"There is no army left in the town, not a soul. Once they were in the town what could we do? It could have been very serious for the population," he said.
The rebellion has aggravated tensions between Congo and its neighbour Rwanda, which Kinshasa's government says is orchestrating the insurgency as a means of grabbing the region's mineral wealth.
Rwanda denies the assertion. However, Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende ruled out talks with the rebels, suggesting they were proxies of the Rwandan government.
"We will continue [resisting] until Rwanda has been pushed out of our country … There will be absolutely no negotiations with M23," Mende said. Kinshasa would talk only directly with Rwanda, he said.
UN experts say Rwanda, a militarily capable neighbour that has intervened in Congo over the past 18 years, is behind the M23 revolt. Congo's mineral wealth, including diamonds, gold, copper and coltan - used in mobile phones - has inflamed the conflict and little has been spent on developing a country the size of western Europe.
Goma's capture will also be an embarrassment for the Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, who won re-election late last year in polls that provoked widespread riots in Kinshasa and which international observers said were marred by fraud. Kabila, in an address to the nation, urged the population to fight the rebels.
"DR Congo is today confronted with a difficult situation," Kabila said. "When a war is imposed, one has an obligation to resist. I ask that the entire population defend our sovereignty."
Congolese state TV reported Kabila was travelling to Uganda, the mediator in the conflict.
Uganda's junior foreign affairs minister, Asuman Kiyingi, said the rebels would not attend the talks.
In the capital Kinshasa, security forces used tear gas and fired shots in the air to disperse a few hundred youths protesting the fall of Goma in a central square. Residents in Congo's second city, Kisangani, attacked Kabila's local party headquarters in frustration.
While conflict has simmered almost constantly in Congo's east in recent years, this is the first time Goma has fallen to rebels since foreign troops officially pulled out under peace deals at the end of the most recent 1998-2003 war.
Hundreds of M23 fighters accompanied their leader Sultani Makenga into Goma, where they were greeted by cheering crowds shouting "welcome".
"We've taken the town, it's under control," said Colonel Vianney Kazarama, a spokesman for the rebels. "We're very tired, we're going to greet our friends now."
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse