A rebel group believed to be backed by Rwanda advanced to within two miles of Goma, a crucial provincial capital in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, marking the first time that rebels have come this close since 2008.
DR Congolese army spokesman Colonel Olivier Hamuli said the fighting has been going on since 6am yesterday (Sunday) and the front line has moved to just a few miles outside the city.
After more than nine hours of violent clashes, the two sides took a break just after 3pm, with M23 rebels establishing a checkpoint just 100 metres away from one held by the military in the village of Munigi, exactly 1.8 miles outside the Goma city line.
M23 spokesman Colonel Vianney Kazarama initially said the rebels would spend the night in Goma.
In the afternoon after the fighting stopped, he said: “We can take Goma easily now, we have pushed the Congolese army back over 10 kilometres (six miles) in one day.
“We are confident that we can take Goma and then our next step will be to take Bukavu,” he said, referring to the capital of the next province to the south.
The M23 rebel group is made up of soldiers from a now-defunct rebel army, the National Congress for the Defence of the People, or CNDP, a group made-up primarily of fighters from the Tutsi ethnic group, the ethnicity that was targeted in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
In 2008, the CNDP led by Rwandan commando General Laurent Nkunda marched his soldiers to the doorstep of Goma, abruptly stopping just before taking the city.
In the negotiations that followed and which culminated in a March 23, 2009, peace deal, the CNDP agreed to disband and their fighters joined the national army of DR Congo.
They did not pick up their arms again until this spring, when hundreds of ex-CNDP fighters defected from the army in April, claiming that the DR Congolese government had failed to uphold their end of the 2009 agreement.
Reports, including one by the United Nations Group of Experts, have shown that M23 is actively being backed by Rwanda, which is providing financial support, arms as well as fighters.
The reports indicate that the new rebellion is likely linked to the ongoing fight to control DR Congo’s rich mineral wealth.
On Saturday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called Rwandan president Paul Kagame “to request that he use his influence on the M23 to help calm the situation and restrain M23 from continuing their attack”, according to peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous who spoke at the UN headquarters in New York on Saturday.
The latest clashes broke out on Thursday and led to the deaths of at least 151 rebels and two soldiers. On Saturday UN attack helicopters targeted M23 positions in eastern Congo.
North Kivu governor Julien Paluku said on Saturday that the DR Congolese army had earlier retreated from Kibumba, which is 19 miles north of Goma, after thousands of Rwandans, who he says were backing the rebels, attacked early on Saturday.
“Rwandan forces bombarded our positions in Kibumba since early this morning and an estimated 3,500 crossed the border to attack us,” he said Saturday.
In Goma, panicked residents came out to try to get more information on what was happening. A 45-year-old mother of five said that she has nowhere to go.
“I don’t really know what is happening, I’ve seen soldiers and tanks in the streets and that scares me,” said Imaculee Kahindo.
Asked if she planned to leave the city, she said: “What can we do? I will probably hide in my house with my children.”