A UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo has fired on M23 rebels near Goma, a day after four people were killed in the border city. It's the first time the UN troops have fought alongside the Congolese army.
The brigade, made up of Tanzanian, South African and Malawian soldiers, was backing the Congolese army in the battle against M23 rebels in Goma, UN and Congolese military officials said on Friday.
On Thursday, mortar shells hit the eastern city of Goma, which borders Rwanda, killing a woman and child. According to the UN, a rocket also struck the nearby village of Kanyaruchinya, killing two and injuring nine.
An unnamed UN official told the news agency AP that the operation was defensive, not offensive, in order to protect civilians and UN bases.
"Of course we responded with artillery as we cannot accept any threat to the population. That's why we retaliated," said UN Lieutenant-Colonel Felix Basse, speaking to Reuters.
"Not just the Intervention Brigade but the complete MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] force is acting to protect Goma," Basse said.
Stronger UN mandate
UN military spokesman Prosper Basse said MONUSCO troops were "henceforth engaged alongside the FARDC [Congolese military]" to deal with the threat.
The UN brigade's firing at M23 rebels marked its first military action since being set up in the last few months. It was created by the UN Security Council for the purposes of neutralizing the threat of armed rebels in Congo.
The UN had pledged in July to prevent the rebels from getting back within range of the city, which they had briefly overtaken last November. However the M23 entered a security zone surrounding Goma earlier this month, which the intervention brigade had set up.
The intervention force has a stronger mandate than previous UN missions, to reinforce the Congolese army and 17,000 UN peacekeepers against the M23 rebels. Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende on Friday welcomed the more aggressive action taken against the rebels.
"I think we can simply welcome the fact that the brigade has gone into action since yesterday. It's a good thing, better late than never."
Fighting returns to Goma
After a lull of about three weeks, fighting between Congolese government forces and the M23 broke out near Goma on Wednesday. Last November, the M23 successfully invaded Goma, a city of a million people, after the rebel group advanced past hundreds of UN 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. However, a United Nations group of experts allege the M23 is being backed by Rwanda and to a lesser degree by neighboring Uganda. The Rwandan government has denied supporting the rebels.
jr/slk (AP, Reuters, AFP)