Kinshasa - Some 113 rebels died in clashes on Thursday between the M23 rebel group and Democratic Republic of Congo troops, the regional governor said, as violence flared days after the United Nations and United States imposed sanctions on the group's leader.
The fighting early on Thursday near the eastern city of Goma came a day after the UN said armed groups in the region slaughtered over 200 people including scores of children between April and September.
Julien Paluku, governor of the resource-rich North Kivu province whose capital is Goma, added that “a few” members of the DR Congo government forces (FARDC) were wounded in the clashes, along with the 113 rebels killed, up sharply from a previous toll.
Government spokesperson Lambert Mende had said earlier that “51 bodies (of rebels) wearing Rwandan army uniforms have been collected”.
Mende added that three rebels were wounded, a captain of the group was caught and that artillery, including rocket launches, were found.
According to the army's spokesperson for North Kivu, Lieutenant Colonel Olivier Hamuli, one FARDC commander died in the clashes.
M23 military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Vianney Kazarama for his part refused to release a toll.
The M23, which has dubbed its armed wing the Congolese Revolutionary Army, was launched by former fighters in an ethnic Tutsi rebel group that was integrated into the Congolese military under a 2009 peace deal whose terms the mutineers claim were never fully implemented.
The United Nations has accused neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda of backing the rebels, but both countries deny this.
Rights groups accuse M23 of human rights abuses and of unleashing a fresh cycle of violence by the region's complex web of armed groups.
Its leader, Sultani Makenga, a former colonel in the DR Congo army, is accused of masterminding killings, sex attacks and abductions and recruiting child soldiers.
A rebel statement accused the DR Congo army of launching several offensives against M23 positions in the Rugari area, about 30km from Goma not far from the Rwandan border.
It said the fighting was a breach of an already shaky ceasefire.
“The FARDC advanced to attack us... We must defend ourselves,” Kazarama told reporters on Thursday morning. He said the rebels would counter-attack “in self-defence”.
Hamuli rejected this: “We did not attack them,” he told AFP. “We know that they have been reinforcing their positions for more than two weeks.”
Hamuli said fighting stopped in the afternoon but that the army was keeping up a search in the area. However, the M23 spokesperson insisted that “the enemy continues to bomb our positions”.
Hamuli said on Thursday “a small group attacked us from Rwanda” as the Congolese army was involved in a separate push targeting rebels between Rugari and Kibumba which borders Rwanda.
Asked whether he could identify the small group he said: “How are we supposed to know who's who if the M23 and the Rwandan army are wearing the same uniform?”
The fighting came a day after the government in Kinshasa dismissed as inadequate UN and US sanctions against Makenga and said neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda should also be targeted.
Washington announced sanctions against Makenga on Tuesday, freezing his assets in US jurisdiction and forbidding any US citizen from doing business with him, accusing him of attacks on civilians and the recruitment of child soldiers.
The United Nations also ordered an assets freeze and a travel ban against the 38-year-old.
North Kivu's capital is in a strategic position in eastern DR Congo sitting on the shores of Lake Kivu and on the border with Rwanda.
Its population of 300 000 is protected by government forces numbering about 20 000 and 5 000 UN troops, according to a Western diplomat. It is also the seat of a large number of non-government organisations.
A Western source said on Thursday that schools in the city closed at noon.
“People are scared,” said Omar Kavota, spokesperson of the umbrella NGO Societe Civile of North Kivu.
Goma is also ringed by several refugee camps, which had prompted the UN mission in DR Congo (Monusco) to send in helicopters to stop the advance of rebels in July.
With Thursday's incident “we are seeing an influx of displaced people to the Kanyarucinya camp”, about 10km from Goma, said Kavota.
According to the M23's political advisor Jean-Marie Runiga the rebels' armed branch had been given instructions to “vigorously respond to the adversary's attacks and to push him back as far as possible”.
But M23 military spokesperson Kazarama denied in the afternoon that the rebels had any plans to march on Goma. “This is not our mission. We have repelled the enemy and we are holding on to our positions.”
The UN said on Wednesday that armed groups in DR Congo's east slaughtered more than 200 people including scores of children between April and September, hacking some to death and burning others alive. - Sapa-AFP