GOMA, Congo — Fighting between the M23 rebels and the army continued for a second day Tuesday near Congo's eastern provincial capital of Goma, in clashes that have so far killed 19 people, all of them either soldiers or rebels, officials said.
A Congolese military spokesman Col. Olivier Hamuli said that the fighting in the village of Mutaho, 10 kilometers (6 miles) northeast of Goma, broke out early Tuesday after M23 rebels tried to take back positions lost to the army in fighting on Monday. In an effort to surround the rebels, he said that the Congolese army had opened a second front in Kanyaruchinya, 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Goma.
The rebels took the strategic city of Goma last November, but left 10 days later under intense international pressure. Complicating the conflict is the fact that the rebels are believed to be financed and backed by neighboring Rwanda, which is accused of sending battalions of fighters across to help M23 gain territory, according to several reports by the United Nations Group of Experts. To end the fighting, Congo's government reluctantly entered into talks with the rebels. The talks reached a dead end in recent weeks, and after a six-month lull the Congolese army and the M23 started fighting again on Monday.
"The M23 and those who support them in the region have purposely started this attack to delay peace," said government spokesman, Lambert Mende on national television on Tuesday. "The toll from the clashes, which were provoked by the mutinous M23, who are being helped by their counterparts from neighboring nations, is 15 dead, 21 injured and six captured among the ranks of the M23," he said. "While in the ranks of the FARDC (the Congolese military), there were four dead and six wounded."
The army has used heavy weapons to try to push back the rebels, including combat helicopter which bombed rebel positions on Monday. After several hours, the M23 were forced to retreat from their positions in Mutaho, northeast of Goma. Early on Tuesday morning, the rebels tried to retake Mutaho, according to Hamuli, though the rebels accuse the army of attacking first.
"Since this morning they have been bombarding us again. In Kanyaruchinya too. We are not responding for now, but we won't be able to wait much longer," said Bertrand Bisimwa, the president of the M23 movement by telephone.
The M23 rebellion began in April 2012, when hundreds of mutinous soldiers defected from the Congolese army. The soldiers were in fact former rebels belonging to a now-defunct rebel group who agreed to put down their arms following a March 23, 2009 peace deal, which paved the way for them to be integrated into the military. M23 takes its name from the date of that peace deal which they claim was not fully implemented. Country experts say the real reason for the rebellion was a fight over the control of eastern Congo's mineral riches.
In recent weeks, leaders of civic groups in Goma claim that hundreds of Rwandan troops have crossed into Congo, further fueling allegations that the rebellion is sponsored by the country's smaller but powerful neighbor. The territory controlled by the M23 is located at the border with Rwanda and Uganda.
In Kanyaruchinya and Kibati, where some of the fiercest fighting is ongoing, locals say the situation resembles what happened in November. People have been fleeing by the thousands and Kibati has become a ghost town, a village of padlocked doors.
In Goma, although a few banks had closed on Tuesday, most businesses remained open, and streets were bustling with people. International aid groups have begun discussing evacuating some of their staff, though no concrete measures have been taken yet.
Later Tuesday sporadic fighting between the army and the rebels could still be heard in Kibati, formerly an M23 position.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, has reinforced its position in Kanyaruchinya, south of Kibati on the road to Goma.
"We have told the M23 that we would fight them (if they try to take Goma) this time", said a U.N. officer in Kanyaruchinya on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to speak to the press. "Sixty-nine civilians died last time they took the city. We will keep our positions here and possibly go further."
According to the officer, a round of mortar fell on Kibati earlier today, but caused no deaths.
"The suffering and displacement of the people, especially women and children, in eastern DRC and beyond have gone on for too long and cannot be tolerated any further," said Mary Robinson, the U.N. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region, in a press release.
Robinson, who was appointed special envoy following a peace agreement signed in February, will visit Goma on Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, as part of a regional tour.
Associated Press writer Saleh Mwanamilongo contributed to this report from Kinshasa, Congo.