GOMA, Congo — The Congolese government on Saturday ordered the Rwandan ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours after a rapid advance by M23 rebels near their common border led to two other towns falling under rebel control.
The expulsion of Ambassador Vincent Karega came on the same day that the M23 rebels doubled the territory they control. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting the rebels, an allegation that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The decision of the High Defense Council of Congo should further aggravate tensions between the two countries whose relations have been strained for decades.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
GOMA, Congo (AP) – Rebels have taken control of two major towns in eastern Congo and doubled the territory they hold after heavy fighting Saturday with the Congolese army, a chief of the company said. civilian and residents.
The escalation of fighting threatened to further exacerbate tensions between Congo and neighboring Rwanda. Congo has long accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebellion, an allegation that Rwanda has repeatedly denied.
The UN peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO said four of its peacekeepers were injured in Kiwanja on Saturday and warned it would “respond vigorously” if there was “an new aggression against its bases”.
Heavy fighting broke out on Saturday morning between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Kiwanja, 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the regional capital, Goma.
John Banyene, president of local civil society, later told The Associated Press that the rebels now controlled both Kiwanja and Rutshuru Center.
“As we speak, we confirm that the M23 rebels and their allies control the town of Kiwanja, but the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not giving up,” Banyene told reporters in Goma.
Daniel Subuka, a Kiwanja resident contacted by phone by AP, said he saw well-armed M23 rebels entering Kiwanja and others moving towards central Rutshuru.
There was no immediate confirmation from Congolese authorities or the military on the reported seizure of the two towns.
However, the UN peacekeeping mission released a statement saying it “strongly condemns the hostile actions of the M23 and their serious consequences on the civilian population”.
MONUSCO “warns that it stands ready to respond vigorously in the event of a new attack on its bases”, the statement said, adding that two of the wounded blue helmets were hit by mortar fire.
The M23 rose to prominence more than a decade ago when its fighters captured Goma, the largest city in eastern Congo, located along the border with Rwanda. After a peace agreement, many M23 fighters were integrated into the national army.
Then the group reemerged last November, claiming the government had failed to deliver on its decade-long promises. In June, they captured the strategic town of Bunagana near the border with Uganda.
Nearly 200,000 people had already been displaced in the past year even before the latest outbreak of violence, which is now blamed for forcing at least 40,000 people to flee in just a week.
The M23 has been a hot spot for Congo-Rwanda relations: many M23 fighters are Congolese Tutsis and the president of Rwanda is of Rwandan Tutsi descent.
In August, a report by UN experts said they had “strong evidence” that members of the Rwandan armed forces were carrying out operations in eastern Congo in support of the M23 rebel group.
Rwanda, however, has repeatedly denied these allegations and accused Congolese forces of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling.
Associated Press writers Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro in Beni, Congo, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.