Fighting intensifies in eastern Congo, displacing hundreds
For months, Congo has accused neighboring Rwanda of supporting the M23 group – whose origins lie in the region’s ethnic fighting – and powerful voices in the West have openly agreed. Rwanda denies backing the group, which is one of dozens operating in mineral-rich eastern Congo.
At a Nov. 23 summit in Angola, which included the Congolese president and Rwanda’s foreign minister, regional leaders called for a ceasefire in eastern Congo, followed by a withdrawal of rebels from the main towns under M23 control.
The group has said it will leave some of the occupied territories by January 15, but some areas remain under its control and it seeks to capture others from government forces. The M23 has been accused by the United Nations and rights groups of atrocities against civilians.
Kitchanga is a key town because it is on the last open road between the main economic poles of North Kivu, Goma and Butembo. The others were isolated because of the fighting.
Many residents of Kitchanga fled Thursday’s violence.
“We have just experienced the war in Kitchanga, we saw the M23 kill people, we were afraid, that’s why we fled so as not to die too”, says Angélique Mukeshimana. The mother-of-four traveled to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma, some 150 kilometers (93 miles) away, leaving behind all her possessions.
The fighting comes days before Pope Francis is due in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, for a three-day visit. The trip was originally supposed to include a stopover in the east, but the Vatican scrapped it amid mounting violence.
M23 political spokesman Lawrence Kanyuka in a statement on Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewhere, and said the rebel group was “forced to intervene and arrest another genocide”.
A spokesman for a UN peacekeeping mission in Congo said more than 500 civilians took refuge in and around the UN peacekeeping base in Kitchanga, where they received tents, food, water and first aid.
“M23 must cease all hostilities and withdraw from occupied areas,” said Ndeye Khady Lo.
Analysts say the rebel group’s drive to expand is having devastating consequences for civilians.
“If the reports that the group has taken control of Kitchanga (…) are true, it is yet another indication of the group’s territorial ambitions and its apparent reluctance to withdraw,” Daniel Levine-Spound said. , researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. .
“The group’s continued westward expansion also raises fears that the M23 may seek to completely encircle Goma. Sustained international pressure, including on M23 supporters, will be essential to halt the group’s advance,” he said.
Composed largely of Tutsis of Congolese descent, COMMA? The M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when it seized Goma, on the border with Rwanda. He is part of a long line of rebel groups linked to Rwanda since the 1990s, when the country sought out ethnic Hutu militias, who had fled to Congo after killing Rwandan Tutsis during the genocide.
Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press reporter Christina Malkia contributed from Kinshasa, Congo.