UN and government troops are reported to have hit rebel postions in the DRC. Earlier the M23 rebels had said they had no plans to attack Goma after the UN deployed tanks around the city.
UN and Democratic Republic of Congo government troops have bombarded rebel positions in the country strife-torn eastern region of Nord-Kivu.
Three helicopters were seen and explosions were heard around the villages of Nkokwe and Bukima, where M23 are thought to have positions. The news agency AFP says UN, army and rebels confirmed the attacks.
Earlier the M23 rebels, named after a failed peace deal on March 23 2009, had seized several towns in the east of the Democatic Republic of Congo, before withdrawing from all but Bunagana on the border with Uganda.
About a dozen UN tanks were stationed around 25 kilometers north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
People have been fleeing the fighting in huge numbers. This is a typical scenario: There's a large crowd on the football pitch in Minova, a small town on Lake Kivu, some 50 kilometers from Goma. Refugees are pouring in from all directions. They are mostly women, children and the elderly. All are traumatised and in despair for they have just left a war zone.
The UN relief agencies are overwhelmed and overworked. 200,000 people have been on the move since April. In Minova the World Food Program is handing out energy biscuits. There are 1000 calories per biscuit, a kilogram of biscuits per person. That has to suffice for a week.
Mashimango Meshi is a spokesperson for the refugees. He comes from Ziralo, a settlement some 80 kilometers away, where he works as the local pastor. Four armed groups are busy fighting each other in Ziralo, he says. They have formed alliances of two groups each. "In principle, the Raiai Mutomboki group are attacking rebels from the FDLR, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, in order to expel them," he explains. Translated "Raia Mutomboki" means "angry population." The FDLR has been taking revenge on that local population by burning down houses and killing people.
There is anarchy in the jungle, because the DRC has pulled all its troops out of the hinterland, deploying them up in the Virunga mountains on the border to Rwanda.
Now the rebels are in the hinterland. In the mountains, meanwhile, the army is engaged in daily firefights with the M23 militia,headed by Bosco Ntaganda who is on the wanted list of the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
The warlord has led many rebel groups in his time, including the CNDP, the ethnic Tutsi national Congress for the Defense of the People. They were integrated into the DRC's armed forces following a peace pact in 2009. 6000 fighters were taken over and Ntaganda was given the rank of general. But he deserted with his troops in April forming the M23. President Kabila had announced that he was handing the general over the ICC.
Deserters put on civlian clothes
Kitchanga is a small town high up in the mountains, amid pasture which is grazing ground for thousands of head of cattle. Kitchanga was once the headquarters of the CNDP. This is where Ntaganda and his followers were born and grew up.
This was also where the mutiny of ex-CNDP troops started, according to local official Edmond Lwanda. The troops based in Kitchanga were almost exclusively ex-CNDP. The deserters joined M23 in order to wage war against the government. "Many of the deserters removed their uniforms and infiltrated our town in civilian clothes," Lwanda says.
A large number of of Hutus and Tutsis who lived in Kitchanga have fled to Rwanda. "We don't know why, but it is a signal for us that something terrible could happen here. We believe we will all die," Lwanda added.
The situation is complicated and difficult to comprehend and that would appear to be part of Ntaganda's strategy. M23 rebels are infilitrating the provinces of eastern DRC in civilian clothes, waiting like sleepers for the order to attack and capture large swathes of the country. They are also forming alliances with other rebel groups with whose help they intend top defeat the DRC's armed forces.
The UN's mission in the DRC, MONUSCO, is one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in the world. Their mission is to protect the civilian population, according to spokesman Alexander Essome. "The population are fleeing the fighting in Rutshuru. Sometime they only hear rumours that fighting is about to start, but they flee nonetheless. Our blue helmets are trying to create corridors through which people can make their way to safety," he explains.
Rutshuru was one of the towns that were captured and then abandoned by M23 in early July.
One of the refugees' destinations is Rwanda and that is part of the problem. The DRC government and a UN panel of sanctions experts have said Rwanda is supplying arms and fighters to the M23 rebels. Rwanda denies this charge. Relations between Rwanda and the DRC plunged into a deep crisis, with the two governments accusing each of having started the chaos.
But on Thursday, on the sidelines of an African Union summit, the DRC, Rwanda and neighboring states called for the creation of an international military force to eliminate armed rebels in eastern Congo.
Author: Simone Schlindwein / mc
Editor: Susan Houlton