GOMA, Congo (AP) — Fighting intensified around a town in eastern Congo Thursday as a rebel group seeking to expand the territory it controls increased pressure on government troops defending it, forcing hundreds of civilians to flee their homes.
By evening it was unclear who controlled Kitchanga in North Kivu province. Videos on social media appeared to show fighters in the M23 group celebrating and claiming they'd captured the town. It was impossible to independently verify their authenticity.
Congo for months 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 Congo’s president and Rwanda’s foreign minister, regional leaders called for a cease-fire in eastern Congo to be followed by a withdrawal of rebels from major towns under M23 control.
The group said it would leave some of the occupied territories before Jan. 15, but some areas remain under its control and it's seeking to capture others from government forces. M23 has been accused by the United Nations and rights groups of atrocities against civilians.
Kitchanga is a key town as it sits on the last open route between North Kivu's main economic hubs of Goma and Butembo. The others were cut off due to the fighting.
Many of Kitchanga's inhabitants fled Thursday's violence.
“We have just been through the war in Kitchanga, we saw M23 killing people, we were afraid, that’s why we fled so we wouldn’t die too,” said Angelique Mukeshimana. The mother of four went to a makeshift displacement site on the outskirts of Goma, some 150 kilometers (93 miles) away leaving all her belongings behind.
The fighting comes days before Pope Francis is due in Congo's capital Kinshasa for a three-day visit. The trip was originally supposed to include a stop in the east, however the Vatican scrapped that amid the rising violence.
M23′s political spokesman, Lawrence Kanyuka, in a statement Thursday accused government troops of attacking civilians in Kitchanga and elsewehere, and said the rebel group was “obliged to intervene and stop another genocide.”
A spokesperson for a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo said more than 500 civilians have taken refuge in and around the U.N. peacekeeping base in Kitchanga, where they've been given tents, food, water and first aid.
“The M23 must cease all hostilities and withdraw from the occupied areas," Ndeye Khady Lo said.
Analysts say the rebel group's drive to expand has devastating consequences for civilians.
“If reports that the group has taken control of Kitchanga ... are true, this is yet another indication of the group’s ongoing territorial ambitions and apparent unwillingness to withdraw,” said Daniel Levine-Spound, a researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
“The group’s continued westward expansion also raises meaningful fears that M23 could seek to fully encircle Goma. Sustained international pressure, including on M23’s backers, will be critical in halting the group’s advance,” he said.
Largely comprised of Congolese ethnic Tutsis, M23 rose to prominence 10 years ago when it seized Goma on the border with Rwanda. It's part of long line of rebel groups linked with 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.