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M23 Rebels Clash with DRC Troops

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Heavy fighting has broken out in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo between the Congolese army and the rebel group M23. Both sides accuse each other of launching attacks, which bring to an end an unofficial truce that's lasted for nearly three months.

DRC’s Information Minister Lambert Mende said the fighting started early on Thursday with an attack by the M23 on a Congolese army, or FARDC position at Kibumba, some 30 kilometers north of Goma, capital of North Kivu province.

"They tried to make a move towards Goma but they were stopped by FARDC troops," Mende said. "They had lost six people by midday. It seems this was a large action because they came from various directions, but the FARDC with the assistance of MONUSCO managed to repulse them."

MONUSCO is the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC.

The M23 denies that it started the fighting. Its spokesman Vianney Kazarama told VOA that the government forces launched attacks beginning at 5 a.m. on the southern front near Goma, and on three other fronts, including near the town of Kiwanja, 90 kilometers north of Goma.

He said the M23 condemns the breach of a truce which regional countries had asked for.

M23 defeated the army and captured territory in Congo's North Kivu province in battles earlier this year.

There has been an effective ceasefire on the main front lines for nearly three months, but during that time the M23 has carried out some small-scale raids on army bases in the neighboring territory of Masisi.

The resumption of hostilities coincides with the release of this year’s final report by the U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo, which repeats the accusations from an earlier report that senior Rwandan officials have been backing the rebels, providing them with arms and recruits, and sometimes direct support by Rwandan army units.

The new report also accuses named individuals in Uganda of supporting the M23.

Mende said the latest fighting might be "a desperate reaction" to the U.N. experts' report.

"I think they are putting pressure on the military delegation from the Great Lakes countries which has gathered in Goma so that they might not continue with their plan to deploy a neutral force," Mende said.

Army officers from 11 regional countries are in Goma to finalize a plan for deploying a force of 4,000 troops along the DRC-Rwanda border. The plan was agreed in principle in June but since then, regional leaders have failed to agree on how it should be put into effect.

The U.N. experts report may also have prompted a reaction from Uganda. On Wednesday the Ugandan government closed a border crossing next to Bunagana, the small town where the M23 has its headquarters.

Mende told VOA the DRC welcomed the closure, and accused the M23 of taxing the traffic crossing the border at Bunagana. But he said Kinshasa expected more from the Ugandan government.

"What we are expecting from our colleagues in Uganda is a position, a very clear position against these Ugandan citizens named in the U.N. experts’ report as financing and sponsoring the M23," Mende said. "We need Uganda to take strong measures against them so as to show that this was not an aggression from the government of Uganda as such, but maybe criminal individuals that are acting on their own behalf. That is what we are waiting for from Uganda.

Both the Rwanda and Uganda have strongly denied the accusations that they are supporting M23. Uganda has threatened to pull its soldiers from international peacekeeping missions unless the U.N. withdraws the allegations.

In their latest report, the experts say they have taken into account the denials by the two governments.

Article by Nick Long, VOA News