Conflict flares up for second consecutive day in eastern Congo


Congolese armed forces soldiers on Saturday take position along a road as they advance while battling M23 rebels in Kibomba, north of Goma, Congo. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)

Fighting erupted for a second consecutive day Saturday between the Congolese army and rebels in the eastern part of this war-ravaged nation, heightening regional tensions.

A front-line Congolese commander declared that neighboring Rwanda had targeted his troops. “Rwanda was shelling us,” Gen. Bahuma Ambamba said.

Rwanda denied that allegation, which came a day after its government said the Congolese army had fired shells into Rwanda. A top U.N. official said that the United Nations could not confirm either side’s allegations but that they were issues of concern. He urged all parties to seek a political solution and return to the negotiating table to solve their differences.

“We are not letting go of the negotiations,” said Ray Virgilio Torres, the regional head of the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “We want to make sure that this does not escalate.”

The United States also called on the army and rebels to refrain from escalating the conflict. “All parties should return to the negotiation table to overcome remaining hurdles to the signing of a final, principled peace agreement, which would establish a permanent ceasefire and hold accountable those who have committed serious crimes,” Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department, said in a statement late Saturday.

The renewed clashes broke out days after talks between the Congolese government and the M23 rebel movement broke down in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

The M23 rebellion was launched in 2012 by disaffected Congolese soldiers who wanted the government to honor the terms of a 2009 peace deal following a previous rebellion. U.N. investigators have alleged that Rwanda is backing the M23 rebels, which its government has publicly denied.

Nearly a year ago, the rebels seized the eastern Congolese city of Goma in a show of force, but later withdrew voluntarily.

Following the breakdown in talks, the Congolese government declared that it would not grant amnesty to the M23 leadership or reintegrate its soldiers into the national army.

In an address to lawmakers Wednesday, Congolese President Joseph Kabila vowed to use military force to quell the rebellion.

“The government will not continue to expose the lives of our compatriots to blind bombings and abuses of all kinds,” he said. M23, he added, “is caught between the force of the army and a narrow political escape route.”

Conflict has besieged this
resource-rich nation
since the fall of its longtime autocratic leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, in 1997. Different rebel groups have fought over the eastern part of the country, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, and its valuable resources, which include vast deposits of tin, gold and coltan, a mineral used in cellphones and laptop computers.

For years, the United Nations has had thousands of peacekeepers in Congo, the largest such force in the world, yet the troops have failed to prevent successive rebel movements from gaining territory. This time, the U.N. force, known by its acronym, MONUSCO, has dispatched a new intervention brigade to support government forces against the M23 rebels.

On Friday, the fighting began. Congolese military officials alleged that the rebels attacked first and that they retaliated. By Saturday afternoon, Congolese soldiers clutching AK-47 rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were filing toward Kibomba, a town a few miles from Kanyamahoro that was once held by the M23. Fierce fighting was unfolding between the two forces for control of Kibomba, according to Congolese military commanders.

From mountaintops in the area, Congolese troops fired mortar shells at the rebel positions. The rebels responded with their own shelling.

“We are progressing step by step,” Ambamba said.

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
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