Several nongovernmental organizations and conservation groups have evacuated Goma. The Zoological Society of London, a major player in the area, is leaving.
"We'll be moving out of Goma into Rwanda for now," said Alice Henchley, a spokesperson for the Zoological Society of London. "The security of our [staff] is our top priority. It's extremely unstable."
Congolese government forces also appeared to be in full-scale retreat Monday. Army vehicles were heading away from the fighting, the Associated Press reported, and UN spokesperson Michele Bonnardeaux said the latest bouts of violence had displaced thousands of civilians.
The area around the park headquarters, in the town of Rumangabo, is called the Mikeno sector. It is thick, hilly jungle that's home to approximately 72 of the roughly 200 mountain gorillas believed to live in Virunga.
The Mikeno sector, in eastern DRC, has also become a central battleground in the fight between government forces and Nkunda's army, which he calls the National Congress for the People's Defense (CNDP).
Neighboring Rwanda has maintained a strong influence in eastern Congo ever since Rwandan troops drove out militiamen hiding in DRC after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Nkunda says his CNDP is protecting ethnic Tutsis from Rwanda—who were targeted in the genocide—from militiamen of the Hutu ethnic group.
The general's men were blamed in the killings of ten mountain gorillas in 2007.
(See a time line of Virunga's past.)
First Attack on HQ
Fighting has raged around Rumangabo since August, and in early October several rangers were forced out.
Virunga park staff have been trying to look after families of these rangers, who are living in a makeshift camp in Goma. A cholera outbreak in the last 24 hours has sickened seven people. An estimated 200,000 civilians have also left their homes since violence broke out.
But the rebels have never before attacked park headquarters.
Though their motives for doing so are unknown, Rumangabo is considered a strategic location, because it lies along one of two major access routes to Goma. The area is also home to the second biggest military base in DRC, which Nkunda rebels captured in early October.
The group handed the base back to the Congolese government under pressure from the United Nations, which maintains a massive peacekeeping force in the region.
The rebels now appear to have their sights on the city of Kibumba, which sits on the other main access road to Goma.
"If Kibumba falls—and it looks [like] it may in the next few hours—that's the last major settlement before Goma," park warden de Merode said. "In a situation like that, our main concern is pillaging by the retreating forces."
Spokespeople for the UN peacekeeping force were not answering phones on Monday afternoon.
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