Congo’s army and rebels clash near border despite calls for peace
Rebels say they were ready to sign a peace deal but that they were attacked
Congolese soldiers rest while being deployed against the M23 rebels near Bunagana, north of Goma. A rapid army advance in recent weeks has driven rebels from towns and cornered them in the hills along the Ugandan border. Photograph: Kenny Katombe/Reuters
Congolese troops and M23 rebels bombarded each other near the Ugandan border yesterday and international envoys called on both sides to cease fire and allow a peace deal to take hold.
Congolese authorities accused the rebels of shelling the frontier town of Bunagana and said it showed M23’s weekend ceasefire declaration was worthless. The rebels said they were ready to sign a peace deal but that they had been attacked. Thousands have fled into Uganda to escape the fighting but some have been wounded by a shell fired across the border.
A rapid army advance in recent weeks has driven rebels from towns and cornered them in the hills along the Ugandan border, raising the prospect of an end to a 20-month rebellion.
South Africa is hosting leaders from the Great Lakes region and southern Africa to back Ugandan-sponsored peace efforts, but the latest violence shows the two sides remain far apart.
“This is not fighting, it is bombs launched by M23 targeting the population of Bunagana,” said Congo army spokesman Col Olivier Hamuli. Bunagana was the last rebel-controlled town to be recaptured last week and rebels are still in the hills nearby. A Reuters reporter said government troops had seized Mbuzi, a strategic hilltop above Bunagana, yesterday after hitting it with tank and rocket fire.
On Sunday M23 announced a ceasefire – a declaration Hamuli described as a lie, saying the army would pursue the rebels. Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said four civilians were killed when a shell landed in Bunagana’s market.
M23 political leader Bertrand Bisimwa complained that the army had attacked its positions with heavy weapons.
“We’re only fighting to defend our position. That’s the logic of war,” he said.
Bisimwa said the group was ready to sign the peace deal: “All the items [in the talks] were finished and there’s no problem anymore, why is the government refusing to sign?”
Envoys monitoring the conflict for the United Nations, European Union, African Union and United States jointly urged both sides not to undo progress made in the talks in Uganda, saying M23 should renounce its rebellion as agreed and the army should hold off from further military action for now.
However, Mr Mende said the army would continue its advance to “wipe out” rebel positions and Congo’s government would assess progress at the talks in South Africa before taking any steps at the Ugandan-hosted peace talks.