KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo’s army defended a major military camp in the country’s east on Thursday after days of fighting with M23 rebels making advances in the region.
Clashes continued at the Rumangabo base in the Rutshuru area of North Kivu province about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the provincial capital, Goma.
“There is no truce. The fighting is still continuing this morning on the same fronts as yesterday,” deputy army spokesman Gen. Sylvain Ekenge said.
Gunfire exchanges have been heard there since early in the morning, said Manouvo Nguka, who lives in Rumangabo where the base is located.
“The army seeks to regain full control of Rumangabo,” he told The Associated Press.
The situation has been critical since Wednesday night, he added.
“There was more than an hour of exchange of fire between the loyalist army and the M23 rebels,” he said.
The army earlier confirmed the rebels also attacked its positions in the Nyragongo and Rutshuru areas.
More than 20 shells were fired by the rebels on Tuesday and Wednesday on Rumangabo, Natale, near the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, and the surrounding area, according to a statement from military spokesman Lt. Gen. Constant Ndima.
The M23 is largely an ethnic Tutsi group opposed to the Congo government that started in 2012 and seized control of Goma, a city of more than 1 million for nearly a month. U.N. forces and Congo’s army dislodged the M23 from Goma and many of rebels fled to Rwanda and Uganda before a 2013 peace agreement. Rwanda and Uganda deny claims that they support M23.
The group has recently resurfaced with increasing attacks in eastern Congo. It accuses the Congo government of not respecting the commitments it made to integrate rebel fighters into the national army.
“Knowing the position of the Congolese government on the process of demobilization and disarmament, it is clear that they act in this way because the Congolese head of state has been clear: There is no question of reintegrating the rebels into the army,” said Congo political analyst Christian Ntumba.
“The population is paying the price ... Our brothers and sisters in the east are tired of living this situation over and over,” Ntumba said, encouraging Congo’s government to boost diplomacy to get the international community to take the fighting in eastern Congo more seriously. Thousands have been displaced by this recent fighting and the east is home to myriad armed groups vying for control of the mineral-rich region.
He said that Congo must also put more pressure on neighboring Rwanda, whom he said is backing the rebels. The government has accused Rwanda of complicity with M23 rebels.
“Suspicions are crystallizing on support that would have been received by M23 from Rwanda,” said Congolese government spokesman Patrick Muyaya.
In the capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, where African foreign ministers are meeting as a prelude to two African Union summits scheduled to take place this weekend, Congo's Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula directly blamed Rwanda.
“Rwanda, I say it without hesitation, attacked the Rumangabo camp, an important military base of the Congolese armed forces,” he said.
Rwanda has described allegations of supporting rebels in Congo as baseless.
Earlier this week, Rwanda’s military accused neighboring Congolese forces of injuring several civilians in cross-border shelling and asked regional monitors to investigate.
Gen. Benoit Chavanat, Deputy Force Commander of the United Nations mission in Congo, said its forces are backing the Congolese army against M23. He told U.N.-backed Radio Okapi the joint forces are stabilizing the situation in the Tchanzu, Runyonyi and Bunagana areas.
Pope Francis is expected to visit Congo at the beginning of July, including a trip to Goma to celebrate Mass and meet with war victims, according to Congolese authorities. However, the Vatican did not immediately respond when asked Thursday whether the current fighting would bring the pope to alter his plans.
AP writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.