NAIROBI, Kenya — A rebellion in eastern Congo threatens to escalate into a regional war as Rwanda accuses Congo of shelling its territory and Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels.
The rebels, known as M23, meanwhile, have taken over the regional capital, Goma.
The Congo army “has deliberately this evening bombed Rwanda using T55 tanks and mortar bombs,” Rwandan Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita told AFP on Monday.
“Rwanda is exercising restraint as of now,” he added.
A Congolese army spokesman in Goma said no orders had been issued to fire on Rwanda but admitted that soldiers may have acted independently. Congolese Col. Oliver Hamuli said that mortars had been fired into Congo from Rwanda several times in recent days.
Fighting in eastern Congo flared Thursday after a months-long stalemate. By Saturday the rebels had advanced from their strongholds north of Goma to take control of Kibumba, just 20 miles from the city.
The rebels seized Kibumba despite the deployment of helicopter gunships by the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, which has 6,700 troops in North Kivu province and is acting in support of the Congolese army. The UN, however, does not have a mandate to engage the rebels directly.
By Sunday afternoon, the rebels had advanced to the outskirts of the city. But they stopped short of entering, and instead issued a series of demands, asking the Congo army to withdraw from Goma and agree to direct talks.
Government spokesman Lambert Mende rejected the rebel ultimatum, describing the M23 as “fictitious forces put in place by Rwanda to hide its criminal activities.”
“We prefer to negotiate with Rwanda, the real aggressor,” he told AFP.
The M23 rebels then invaded the city from two fronts, causing thousands of civilians to flee.
The M23 is made up of former Rwanda-backed militants that fought the Congolese army for years before striking a peace deal in 2009. The former fighters were at the time brought into the fold of Congo's national army. But a contingent of the former militants, unhappy with how the deal was implemented, broke off about seven months ago and resumed the fight.
While M23 says it only wants the original peace agreement honored, they have grown in notoriety by annexing a large swathe of territory in eastern Congo. Rwanda’s interest in supporting the rebels would likely stem from the 1994 genocide. At that time, ethnic Hutu death squads killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. When the Tutsi fought back, many Hutus fled to neighboring countries, including what is now Congo. Chasing the killers, Rwanda invaded Congo twice — in 1996 and 1998 — triggering a regional war that has led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, mostly from disease and starvation.
Eastern Congo is also rich with minerals, making it a source of both potential wealth and instability for Rwanda.
Government troops traded machine gun and mortar fire with rebels inside Goma, a city of about 1 million people, and close to the airport, which the rebels managed to seize. Rebel commander Sultani Makenga issued a statement warning Goma’s residents to stay indoors.
A United Nations panel of experts, human rights groups and the Congolese government all accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels, allegations Rwanda has consistently denied.
Following an emergency weekend meeting at its New York headquarters, the UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous described the rebels as “well-equipped and very well-supplied,” adding that they had gained possession of night vision goggles and large 120mm mortars.
The UN has stopped short of directly blaming Rwanda for the rebellion. But Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned President Paul Kagame over the weekend urging him to “use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation,” Ladsous said.
In its latest report, submitted to the Security Council last month, the UN Group of Experts said Rwanda’s defense minister Gen. James Kabarebe, a close confidante of Kagame’s, commands the M23 rebels.
The confidential report seen by GlobalPost also accused Rwanda of sending troops across the border to support the rebels.
Congolese officials accused Rwanda late last week of sending thousands of troops across their shared border in support of the rebel advance.
Goma residents remember a similar siege four years ago when the M23 predecessor, called the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDC, also advanced on the city before withdrawing with a stronger bargaining hand.
As the clashes and insecurity grow, aid workers are increasingly worried about the plight of civilians. The most vulnerable among them are those forced to flee makeshift refugee camps set up during earlier fighting.
“The situation in Goma is extremely tense. There is a real threat that the city could fall into the M23's hands,” said Kieran Dwyer, the UN peacekeeping spokesman.
“The violence in and around Goma is hampering efforts to provide humanitarian relief, and vulnerable populations who are already displaced are being forced to flee again,” he added.
Tariq Riebl, a humanitarian coordinator for the aid agency Oxfam, said that more than 50,000 people have fled camps and homes in Goma since Sunday and are in dire need of shelter, water and food.
“Families have been split up overnight and people are desperately going between sites trying to find loved ones,” he said.