Congolese military forces have clashed with the M23 militia near the city of Goma, for the first time in nearly six months. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit DRC in the coming days.
Fighting between hard-line M23 rebels and government troops broke out early Monday morning in North Kivu province, just north of Goma, a regional capital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Monday's hostilities come just a week after the first consignment of United Nations Security Council intervention brigade troops arrived in the country with a mandate to attack armed rebel groups.
A UN peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO has been stationed in the country since 1999 - but its 18,000 soldiers are only entitled to protect the civilian population.
Just days after the UN's decision in March to deploy 3,000 intervention troops to the northeast of the country in a bid to drive out rebels, M23 president Bertrand Bisimwa responded to the Security Council's plan by saying "the UN has declared war."
M23 spokesperson, Amani Kabasha, said fighting broke out early Monday morning (local time), 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) north of Goma, in the northeast of the country. DRC's military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Mamadou Ndala, confirmed fighting between the two sides.
"They [M23] attacked our positions near Muja this morning. We pushed them back and we are now taking measures to avoid an infiltration into Goma. We are bringing in 600 commandos north of Goma to protect the city," Ndala told reporters.
Contradicting the government's account, the M23 used its Twitter feed to report that the army attacked its troops before dawn. Its counteroffensive, it added, was pushing back government troops.
Schools, banks and shops were closed on Monday due to the renewed fighting, DW correspondent Jack Kahorha reported from Goma.
"There is still panic among local residents," he added.
Major Vincent Tourny, spokesperson for MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, said "800 civilians had fled towards Goma," following the early-morning gun-fire exchange.
MONUSCO's troops, he added, were on alert should the situation escalate further. Something, Kahorha says the people of Goma welcome.
"The deployment of [MONUSCO] troops will make a difference."
The clashes are the first involving the Tutsi-led militant group to occur since December 2012 and come just two days ahead of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's visit to the country. The UN chief is also expected to travel to Goma.
The M23 successfully invaded Goma, a city of a million people, in November last year after the rebel group advanced past hundreds of United Nations peacekeeping troops stationed in the area.
With a mandate not to engage in military action, the rebel group was able to make an advance on one of the DRC's most important cities in the country's east.
Intense international pressure stopped the rebel advancement and after 10 days, the M23 withdrew and headed back towards the north where they have been stationed ever since.
The M23 militia has been in talks with the Congolese government since pulling out of Goma in December 2012.
Talks in recent weeks have stalled as the DRC government pins its hopes on the intervention brigade being able to stop the M23 and other rebel groups in the country from advancing further.
A United Nations Group of Experts report the M23 is being backed by Rwanda, and to a lesser degree by neighboring Uganda. The Rwandan government has denied supporting the rebels.
The hard-line M23 rebel group comprises of soldiers form the Tutsi ethnic group, who deserted the Congolese military.