GOMA, Congo — Clashes erupted Monday in eastern Congo between government troops and a rebel group believed to be backed by neighboring Rwanda, escalating to the use of mortars and rocket launchers in the first fighting between the groups since the M23 rebels overtook and later retreated from the provincial capital of Goma last year.
Fears that the rebels will try to retake Goma have been mounting ever since the United Nations Security Council created an intervention brigade with a mandate to attack the armed group. The M23 called the creation of the brigade a "declaration of war."
Monday's fighting forced thousands of people to flee, leaving behind deserted villages. Hundreds sat with their belongings packed at their feet near one barrier put up by a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Kanyaruchinya. Some were starting fire to cook diner and getting ready to spend the night outside.
Alphonsine Ndahandi, a 63-year-old grandmother carrying her family belongings in a bundle on her back, said the fighting began at 4.am.
"There were gunshots, bombs. It was raining on our village. It was much, much stronger than when they fought in November," she said.
The clashes "escalated to the use of heavy-caliber weapons, mortars and rocket launchers," according to Eduardo del Buey, the deputy spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary-General.
Lt. Col. Mamadou Ndala, a commander with the Congolese military, said that the rebels opened fire on government troops near the locality of Muja, north of Goma, one of the most important cities in Congo's east.
"They attacked our positions near Muja this morning. We pushed them back and we are now taking measures to avoid an infiltration into Goma. We are bringing in 600 commandos north of Goma to protect the city," he said.
The M23 rebel movement is made up of soldiers from the Tutsi ethnic group, who defected from the Congolese army. Last November, the M23 succeeded in invading Goma, advancing past the hundreds of United Nations peacekeepers stationed there who did not open fire because their mandate does not allow them to engage militarily. It took intense international pressure to halt the rebel's advance. Ten days later, the rebel group retreated north of the city from where they had come.
M23 fighters have since been stationed north of Goma.
The M23 on Monday denied that they had attacked the military and said that Congo's army had opened fire. Bertrand Bisimwa, the president of the rebel group, said M23 troops went to fetch water at a well in Mukawa, off the road to Goma, when they encountered fighters from a different rebel group which is also stationed in eastern Congo and allied with the Congolese military.
"We pushed them back around 6 a.m., but shortly after, the Congolese army started bombarding us from their position near Munigi. So far we have not responded to their attack," Bisimwa told The Associated Press by telephone on Monday. "It's a provocation. If they carry on, we will have to silence their weapons."
His account could not be confirmed and was called into question because there is no well in the volcanic area where the fighting broke out.
The M23 has been engaged in negotiations with the Congolese government since the armed group pulled out of Goma last year, but talks have stalled in recent weeks. The Congolese government instead has been counting on the U.N. intervention brigade, which was due to arrive at the end of April, to help it eradicate the M23 threat.
The Security Council voted to create the brigade in March. The special unit has a mandate to attack armed groups, in contrast to the mandate of the other peacekeepers whose role is to protect civilians. South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania are due to send troops shortly to serve in the brigade. Tanzania has sent 100 troops so far.
The M23 reacted aggressively to the news of the brigade's creation and threatened to kill troops from contributing countries. "The U.N. has declared war," said Bisimwa.
According to multiple reports by the U.N. Group of Experts, the M23 is back by Rwanda, and to a lesser extent by Uganda. Congo's neighbors have a history of supporting proxy armed groups in eastern Congo to further their economic and political interests in the region. The M23 rebels were previously part of another Rwanda-backed rebellion, the CNDP, which was integrated in the army following a 2009 peace deal. The rebellion takes its name from that agreement, signed on March 23, 2009.