UN peacekeepers’ attack helicopters failed to stop rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) from seizing another town on Saturday, as the UN Security Council demanded an end to foreign support for rebels closing in on a provincial capital.
A UN peacekeeping spokesman said the M23 rebels had taken the town of Kibumba, which lies 25km north of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu Province, which borders Rwanda and Uganda.
The rebel victory came despite the UN’s decision to send in attack helicopters to support Congolese troops. In New York, the 15-nation Security Council went into an emergency session on the crisis.
With M23 rebels less than 20km from Goma, the main city in the mineral-rich region, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to Rwandan President Paul Kagame to “use his influence on M23,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous said.
Rwanda has denied a report by UN experts that it has backed the rebels. Ladsous said the UN could not confirm whether Rwanda is helping the new rebel offensive, but told reporters that M23 “attacking forces are well-equipped and very well supplied.”
A council statement demanded an end to the M23 advance and vowed new sanctions against the group’s leaders and those who help it breach UN sanctions.
The latest fighting has forced more than 7,000 people to flee to the already packed Kanyarucinya Displaced Persons’ Camp, about 10km outside Goma.
Fears are growing that the rebels might try to take Goma itself.
Saturday’s fighting was just the latest clash last week between the army and the rebels of the M23 group, composed of ethnic Tutsi army mutineers.
While each side blamed the other for the latest violence, the UN’s peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, said the M23 had launched an offensive with heavy weapons early on Saturday.
As a result, the UN mission had deployed its peacekeepers to protect civilians.
“As part of this, 10 missions were carried out by [MONUSCO] attack helicopters,” it said in a statement. “MONUSCO firmly condemns the renewal of hostilities. It calls on the M23 to immediately halt its attacks, which have caused a deterioration of the already fragile security and humanitarian situation.”
The attack helicopters, provided by Ukraine, were put on standby on Friday after the M23 attacked the DR Congolese army north of Goma.
MONUSCO said the latest fighting was taking place about 5km from the Kanyarucinya camp, which currently holds between 60,000 and 80,000 displaced people.
The UN peacekeeping spokesman said the Congolese forces and MONUSCO peacekeepers “are attempting to hold off a possible M23 advance toward Goma at Kibati,” about 20km to the north.
The clashes are the most serious in the rebellion since July, when UN attack helicopters were last put into action against the M23.
UN experts have said Rwanda and Uganda back the rebels, a charge fiercely denied by both countries.
As the fighting flared, the DR Congo government and army leveled fresh accusations that the M23 were getting help from Rwanda.
DR Congo government spokesman Lambert Mende said the latest fighting erupted when 4,000 men descended in columns on the country’s territory from Rwanda.
Olivier Hamuli, a DR Congo army spokesman in North Kivu Province, said the M23 was clearly receiving support from Rwanda.
“I was at the front line myself and the shots came from Rwanda,” he told reporters.
Hamuli said the Congolese army was to launch a new offensive yesterday morning “to retake Kibumba and advance on the M23’s positions wherever they are.”
The M23 rebels are former fighters in the Tutsi rebel group, the National Congress for the Defence of the People.
The congress was integrated into the DR Congo military under a 2009 peace deal, but the mutineers say they rebeled because the terms of the deal were never fully implemented.